It’s not possible to detail the story of Duplicity. At least, I can’t do it unless I were to ruin all of the fun for you. Almost everything that happens in the film happens in a way to confuse you. Everybody acts in a way to hide their true motivations from one another, even people they supposedly trust. Reveals are done primarily by rewinding the clock and showing us something from days or months earlier.
I’ll give you an example. Two characters are agents who constantly double-cross, triple-cross, or maybe even go further than that. We’ll see a scene play out, where it seems like something doesn’t go their way. The next time we see them will be 18 months prior, planning exactly how they want to appear — which in this case means that they’re going to appear as if they didn’t get what they wanted, but in reality, they did. Confused? This happens in every second scene, or at least, that’s what it felt like. Even the second-to-last scene in the film does this to us, although the ending was the highlight for me.
The agents I mentioned are Claire (Julia Roberts) and Ray (Clive Owen). They first meet at a party five years before the main story of the film begins. She drugs him and steals a briefcase. Even then, they worked for competing agencies. She was with the CIA, he was with M16. Or maybe it was the other way around. It doesn’t matter. They end meeting again as contacts working with one another, and their previously short-term romance is rekindled. They end up spending three days together at a hotel, which is when the cook up a plan to live that type of lifestyle forever.
As far as I can tell, it involves managing to secure $40 million by playing companies against one another. They need competitors who already hate one another to do this, although what the business is doesn’t matter. Ray suggests frozen pizza enterprises, while Claire decides that using companies run by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson would be a better idea. One company is developing something — we don’t learn what until much later on — and the other wants to steal it and unveil it first. Of course, Ray and Claire actually want to steal it and sell it so that they can live together forever off the funds. Or maybe ditch the other and go off on their own. Maybe.
That’s about as much sense as I can make of the story. It’s possible I just ruined some of it, but I think, if you pay close enough attention, they make this plan earlier and more discreetly than it initially seems. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter, though, as the fun that comes from the film is not figuring out the story, but in watching individuals to battle in each scene. Everyone seems to know what everyone else is thinking, yet they don’t play all of their cards until it’s necessary. Or maybe they do, and have to figure out how to get that card from under their sleeve in a way so as to not allow other characters to know their cheating. If that made sense to you, Duplicity is probably going to entertain you. If not, stay away from it, as the film is far, far more complex than my card metaphor.
It is quite invigorating to watch Roberts and Owen go after one another in scene after scene, all while not really wanting to harm each other, as revealed in the flashbacks. Or maybe they really do want to. We’re never sure, even after their “motivations” are “revealed.” Right up until the final scene, we’re unsure of what their true plan is, or what they each really want. This is fascinating, and both actors take us through this while keeping a straight face. With the way the dialogue plays out, keeping a straight face might have been more difficult than one would initially think.
It’s fair to say that the constant misdirection doesn’t always work. Some times, I was left more confused than I should be, even after the reveals. Later revelations contradict earlier ones, certain moments don’t make sense, and some editing cut out parts of the film that I would have figured important. At one point, a character gets the MacGuffin, but it’s not explained how. It doesn’t prove to be important, but considering the fact that this character gets caught trying to take the MacGuffin, and then in the next scene, he has it anyway, I was left wondering how exactly that worked.
Duplicity needed to use its supporting actors more often. Either Clive Owen or Julia Roberts were in practically every scene, which is fine, but Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson needed more screentime. This is especially true of Wilkinson, whose character plays a large role in the ending, but only showed up in a few scenes prior. Both of these supporting actors disappeared for large portions of the film, and trying to make us care about their corporate espionage didn’t work because we very rarely see the two men.
Duplicity is a thrilling, confusing and largely exciting film that needed to explain itself better than it ended up doing. There’s something to be said about letting the audience fill in the blanks, but when there are moments that go unexplained, while others contradict one another, someone hasn’t done their job properly. Still, watching Clive Owen and Julia Roberts constantly have a war of words is entertaining, even if it means that the supporting cast doesn’t get enough time on-screen. I enjoyed Duplicity, but unless you like overly complicated thrillers, it’s not something I’d recommend.