Thursday, August 27, 2009
Tony Gilroy is a curious case. We tend to celebrate verbosity in screenplays, from the nonstop wit of Herman J. Mankiewicz to the madcap referencing of Tarantino's characters, but Gilroy goes in the other direction. Writing the lines for the stoic Jason Bourne gave his lines a curt, punchy feel that calls to mind some of the finest plotters of film noir. His taut dialogue keeps plots moving even as he deceptively fleshes out characters and makes them highly interesting. He's perhaps too much in love with puzzles, though; Michael Clayton, good as it was, bogs down in some of its jagged pieces, which came together to make a satisfying whole but don't hold up as well with multiple viewings. Still, I'd wager it was one of the finest American movies of '07, which overflowed with cinematic gifts, thus putting the pressure on for Gilroy's sophomore effort behind the camera, Duplicity.
In some ways, Duplicity plays like a comedic version of Michael Clayton, with its corporate intrigue plot and the twisted mire of its narrative. Where Clayton profiled the crumbling of those who couldn't accept the status quo any longer, though, Duplicity gives us characters who can't stop playing the game at any time. The latest entry in that strange mash-up of romantic comedy and spy thriller, it brings out something we haven't quite seen in Gilroy's on-point, thrilling scripts: humor.
This heretofore unseen lightness in Gilroy's writing gives the turbulent romance between MI6 agent Ray (Clive Owen) and CIA agent Claire (Julia Roberts) the feel of a Thin Man or a Bogey/Bacall picture. They meet at a Fourth of July party, Ray tries to seduce her, seemingly succeeds, then wakes up to find that she stole classified documents from him. This is pretty much the last time in the film that anything ever makes sense, so you might as well buckle up now.
Five years later, Ray's working for a pharmaceutical company, Equikrom, run by Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti). Garsik is matched in greed only by his chief rival, Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), CEO of Burkett & Randle. Ray is sent to meet with a contact working for Equikrom as a mole in Tully's corporation. Tully's been working on some new formula that he believes will result in previously unimaginable amounts of profit and Garsik, naturally, would like to prevent that from happening, preferably by stealing the cash cow mystery formula for himself. So, Ray goes to meet this mole, only to discover that the contact is, in fact, Claire. Ray savors the moment as he has finally found the woman who broke his heart. But is this the first time they've crossed paths since their first meeting?
Well, no, and that's the first twist in a film that quickly gets away from the writer. Michael Clayton was a bit too in love with its various turns, but Duplicity leaps overboard: as Ray and Claire fall in love, betray each other, reconnect, rinse and repeat, Gilroy pulls the rug out from under us so many times that eventually you stop standing on the damn rug. Nothing is as it seems, yet he's working in the lighter realms of comedy, so the incessant corkscrewing of the plot does not offer insights, only distractions.
Having said that, the dialogue is so good that I found myself playing along some time after I should have thrown my hands up and just rewatched Michael Clayton. The barbs Ray and Claire throw at each other in between their numerous make-up sessions are so acidic they could burn through steel. Clive Owen has that deadpan that must simply be a genetic trait in Britain, and he delivers every line with a pronounced laconic drawl sped up ever so slightly to keep pace with the speed of Gilroy's dialogue. But it's Julia Roberts who steals the show; since 2000's Erin Brokovich, Roberts has been on fire. She looks better than ever, and that girl-next-door innocence has slowly morphed into a fiery, scathing wit. The only glimmers of that doe-eyed sweetie of the past surface when Claire deliberately plays on that image to con someone.
The interaction between Owen and Roberts helps mask the glaring flaws in Gilroy's script. His story is convoluted yet simplistic, and the real narrative is about 20 minutes shorter than the film, and let's not even go into how tragically the director under-utilizes Giamatti and Wilkinson. If this review seems short, it's because I honestly tuned out of the narrative about halfway through and just stuck with Roberts and Owen, and there's too much juicy dialogue to spoil by writing it out without the benefit of their excellent delivery. Still, Gilroy's direction is much improved over his unsure work on Clayton, and he does a fine job behind the camera. It's nothing special, mind you, and it certainly can't salvage the plotting, but he keeps our attention focused almost exclusively on the strength of his two leads. Which is actually quite keen of him.