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Suspense and comedy a la Hitchcock.

SPIES LIKE US: Julia Roberts and Clive Owen star in 'Duplicity.'
  • SPIES LIKE US: Julia Roberts and Clive Owen star in 'Duplicity.'

“Duplicity” comes at you fast with more bends and curves than a car commercial but only really takes off with a sequence that lurches by in extreme slow motion. Two groups of men huddle under the wings of opposing corporate jets in the rain, soundlessly hurling invective and gesticulating wildly at each other. When the leaders among them finally emerge from the ranks, we get not towering and muscle-bound warriors but pasty and paunchy CEOs, thoroughly modern titans played by Paul Giammatti and Tom Wilkinson. Every ripple in their flabby cheeks, the very wagging of their fingers, registers hilariously in slow motion. They end up tousling inexpertly on the wet tarmac.

Their splashing about represents just two bravura performances of many in Tony Gilroy's second directorial effort, a strange mixture of comedy and suspense that draws heavily from the power of performance — and I'm not just talking about the acting. The plot itself hinges on the perfect execution of a variety of ruses because the two main characters have a plot of their own to execute.

The romantic pair of Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) — MI5 and CIA, respectively — meet in the field under less-than-ideal circumstances. Stenwick (note the homophonic similarities to “Stanwyck,” as in the ultimate femme fatale) allows herself to be seduced by the suave Koval only to drug him into unconsciousness and toss his room for missile defense coordinates. Burned but still hooked, Koval later chases Stenwick down in Rome, and the two conspire to get themselves involved on the winning end of a little private-sector espionage. Anything more about their scheme is already too much.

Gilroy's “Michael Clayton” trod the same territory under more dire circumstances, but the corporate intrigue that attracts these two is less Enron than Johnson & Johnson. Pitting two hygiene magnates against each other might lead to a hefty payday, but the stakes are toothless enough to keep the proceedings light and breezy, so despite any of its failings the movie remains a likable Hitchcockian romp.

Its failings are few but glaring. Roberts and Owen are out of their depths in these roles, which forbid any discernible inner lives but require the kind of instant charisma once overflowing in Hollywood. However well he wears a suit, Owen is no Cary Grant — or George Clooney. He was better as another, less effortlessly put-together MI5 agent in “The International,” which was nevertheless a much worse movie. Roberts, meant to embody a no-nonsense and somewhat haggard pro, gets the haggard part right. About the best she can do is look tired. She's always come off as little more than a pair of wax lips on stilts to me, but stripped of her trademark ebullience and wide-mouthed whinny, she's even less. There can be no more Barbara Stanwycks, but I can think of better approximations.

Other performances are uniformly excellent, as we should expect from such a sturdy script. Giammatti makes any role seem written especially for him, and Wilkinson's negligible screen time belies his overall effect. And then there are the vaguely familiar faces that pop up to steal scene after scene.

A few have complained about the supposedly impenetrable web of the plot, but things seemed clear enough to me when the credits rolled, or as clear as such things could be. This is after all a film about the impossibility of ever knowing for sure whether you've been duped. But nobody can fool you into having such a good time.

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