Sexy does not come naturally to Julia Roberts. Cute? Sure, she can swing that. Adorable? Of course. Charming and delightful in a fresh-faced, all-American kind of way? That’s her lucrative specialty. But as her cringe-inducing turn in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind proved, glamour and femme-fatale dangerousness have always been problematic for arguably our biggest female movie star. And the female lead in Duplicity calls for the kind of atomic, glow-in-the-dark, Rita Hayworth-in-Gilda sexuality that is most assuredly out of Roberts’ range. Angelina Jolie effortlessly conjures up that kind of fire-breathing sexiness. Roberts? Not so much.
With Duplicity, writer-director Tony Gilroy returns to the corporate intrigue and shenanigans of his directorial debut, Michael Clayton,for the twisty tale of a pair of former CIA spooks (Roberts and Clive Owen) who leave government work behind for bigger paychecks as private operatives for a giant conglomerate run by Paul Giamatti. The two have a tangled, tumultuous shared past that unfolds in flashbacks to sweaty hotel rooms in exotic locales where they loved, lost, and fucked each other over, literally and figuratively. Roberts and Owen are dispatched to discover the secret behind a mystery product being developed by a corporation run by Giamatti’s archenemy (Tom Wilkinson), but trusting each other proves an even greater challenge.
In order for Duplicity to work dramatically, it needs leads who generate such explosive sexual heat that the very fabric of the universe will be rent asunder, but Roberts and Owen’s chemistry is lukewarm at best. Gilroy doesn’t help Roberts by making her character a glowering ice lady—all guile, glares, and merciless calculation. Too clever by half, Duplicity is ingeniously plotted and zestily scored, but it’s never fast or funny enough to make audiences forget they’re watching pragmatic schemers who care about nothing but money. Gilroy has a weakness for fracturing the frame into neat little rectangles, and he stages a slow-motion fight scene for the ages featuring two of the least likely combatants in film history. But this champagne cocktail of a film runs out of fizz around the halfway mark. For a sexy comedy that tries and fails to recapture the sensual smarts of vintage screwball fare, Duplicity is regrettably short on sex and comedy.