Clive Owen as Ray Koval
Julia Roberts as Claire Stenwick
Tom Wilkinson as Howard Tully
Paul Giamatti as Richard Garsik
Dan Daily as Garsik’s Aide
David Shumbris as Turtleneck
Rick Worthy as Dale Raimes
Oleg Shtefanko as Boris Fetyov
Denis O’Hare as Duke Monahan
Kathleen Chalfant as Pam Frailes
Khan Baykal as Dinesh Patel
Thomas McCarthy as Jeff Bauer
Wayne Duvall as Ned Guston

Directed by Tony Gilroy

As much as you can enjoy Tony Gilroy’s second movie for the fun chemistry between its stars, get ready to put on your thinking caps if you want to keep up with all the twists and turns in this clever non-linear espionage comedy.

Former MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and former CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) get caught up in the bitter competition between two rival cosmetic corporations, each trying to get the upper-hand using their skills as spies to take part in the operation for their own private reasons.

Following the slow-moving Oscar-nominated corporate thriller “Michael Clayton” with a light-hearted romantic spy comedy might seem like a drastic departure for Tony Gilroy, but “Duplicity” is driven by the same knack for intelligent storytelling and delving into new territory that made Gilroy’s previous screenplays so riveting.

After a scene introducing Clive Owen’s Ray and Julia Roberts’ Claire, two government operatives on assignment in Dubai that fall into bed together, we get a title sequence featuring a slow-motion confrontation between two executives (Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson) on an airport tarmac, their disagreement turning into a full-on physical brawl as their respective entourages look on horrified by what they’re witnessing. Years later, Ray is no longer working for MI6, and he’s just been employed by Omnikrom, a company that’s discovered their primary competition–Burkett & Randle–are about to announce a lucrative development that will give them an edge in their corporate battle. (It’s the heads of these two companies we saw fighting earlier.) When Ray runs into Claire on the streets of New York, she no longer remembers him, even though she’s involved in the same corporate battle only in a different capacity.

It’s hard to say much more about the plot without taking way from the enjoyment that’s inherent with watching the various plotlines unfold and come together, but you really need to play close attention in the first half hour, especially to the titles, since things jump around very quickly as the story follows two concurrent non-linear timelines. Otherwise, you’ll probably be completely lost, a problem exacerbated if you don’t know that the main plot revolves around the competition between two companies. While this little tidbit of information is clearly evident from the commercials and trailer, without seeing them, it’s not immediately obvious that Ray has been employed as a corporate spy at a cosmetic company. Omnikrom could really be anything, including a government agency trying to get financial dirt on a company they’re investigating, and it’s harder to get into the swing of things if you go into this movie lacking knowledge of this central premise.

Regardless, there’s little question that Julia Roberts is back playing the type of character her fans will enjoy, one that plays up to her strengths as an actress. It’s her best role since Soderbergh’s first “Ocean’s 11” and the overall film has a similar feel, mainly due to the playful rapport that builds between Roberts and Owen over the course of the movie. The British actor isn’t breaking new ground as Ray, the suave and charming ex-spy, the character probably being the closest he’s played to his own real-life persona and less angst-ridden than his normal roles. With their well-rehearsed patter, the duo create an on-screen chemistry much like the classic pairings of the ’30s and ’40s, and the film’s title of “Duplicity” couldn’t be more apropos for the nature of their interaction, as Clair is constantly tricking Ray and trying to ruin his undercover operations.

As good as they are, there probably isn’t more perfect casting than Paul Giamatti as Richard Garsik, the CEO of Omnikrom, showing the sleazy bravado that comes with feeling impervious, something that’s most evident in a rousing speech given to his company’s shareholders. On the opposite side of the battle is Tom Wilkinson as the quieter, almost effeminate, head of their opposition, but it’s a role that allows him fewer standout moments than “Clayton.”

When Roberts and Owen are apart from each other, they have equally terrific scenes with an array of supporting players, roles filled by strong character actors like Dennis O’Hare and Tom McCarthy, both whom played small parts in “Clayton,” as well as Carrie Preston as Barbara Bofferd, a woman from the secretarial pool tricked into helping Ray.

Since at its core, “Duplicity” is still essentially a spy movie, there’s lots of cool gadgets used to steal information from technology that can hijack anything placed on a copy machine to a universal skeleton key for hotel room electronic locks. The fast-paced interaction between the actors and the use of split-screens in the transitions gives the film a cool retro feel that also greatly adds to the overall enjoyment once you get past the initial hurdles.

The Bottom Line:
Neither a conventional spy flick nor a traditional romantic comedy, “Duplicity” is a satisfying mix of the two that’s as entertaining as it is thought-provoking once you get your head around the somewhat foreign idea of companies going to such great lengths to stay ahead of the competition.