I’m not sure if there’s a way to say anything substantial about Duplicity without giving away a lot of its story, which one really shouldn’t know before watching it. Am aware of, and a big believer in, the argument that the how of a film is as interesting and important as the what. Nowadays, however, films tend to feature an imbalance between the two: a glossy style with no meaningful content. In the same vein, there are now more and more films that blur the distinction between form and content, style and stubstance, and Duplicity is one of these. So, “spoilers” ahead. It should also be admitted that Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are a wonderful pair. Too bad Roberts is semi-retired and picking gigs with such choosiness, because this coupling could be, dare I say, reduplicated to great effect in future projects. One dear to me said that the two are sexy, but that classy kind of sexy, in the vein of Grant/Bogart and Bergman/Hepburn (Audrey, thank you). Other details to acknowledge include the fact that, yes, the music at the beginning sounds a lot like Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies, and the editing and location stuff looks a lot like the Bourne movies. The latter makes sense, since Tony Gilroy wrote all three of those screenplays and wrote/directed Duplicity.
Speaking of Ocean’s Eleven, someone (I forget who) wrote that the film is a major cheater in the crime caper genre of films by not letting the audience in on the heist until the very end. We get to know enough of what’s happening that we’re not completely in the dark, but information is withheld so as (1) to keep the heist interesting and (2) to amaze us at the end when the group exits the Caesar’s Palace cul-de-sac in a SWAT truck. But just thinking back to one of the great crime capers of all time, The Sting does something very similar, such that toward the end, the viewer hesitates for a moment, wondering if the plan went totally wrong and backfired. Of course, everything turns out to be fine; the audience just wasn’t informed about everything. Duplicity turns this technique into a game, structuring the film almost completely around viewer knowledge. When the end arrives with a big surprise, however, it also turns out to be a surprise to the protagonists. This is the twist that is sure to rub information-greedy viewers the wrong way. Being led to believe that we were essentially informed of everything, it turns out that we’re in the dark to the exact degree that the main characters are in the dark.
Gilroy’s editing of the film, with flashbacks getting nearer and nearer the present setting, progressively paint the background for the viewer up until the end, when the viewer and the main characters realize it’s all been for naught. What had appeared to be a take-down of two corporate entities simultaneously turns out to be a corporation winning out over its competition and the hopeful thieves. Somebody always has to be the loser, and movies typically acknowledge this, focusing on the big winner(s) and/or the big loser(s). Duplicity is a refreshing alternative, focusing on characters who only lose time and effort, but who at least regained something previously lost (the quintessentially Hollywood love element). This twist, and the overlap between form and content, are essential to the film’s point. Having spent so much time on the Bourne films, it’s not hard to imagine that Gilroy saw it for the stretch that it was. One guy taking down the whole of the CIA and every other espionage and counter-intelligence force that goes after him? This is unlikely. And the echoes of the Ocean’s movies also recall the dubious heists of a crew of talented but nevertheless motley characters who do the completely impossible over and over again, and do so in a very entertaining fashion. By playing with viewer knowledge (progressive revelation giving way to a pulling-the-carpet-out-from-under) through editing structure, Duplicity implies that its protagonists know something the viewer doesn’t. This leads to the viewer seeking information chiefly in these main characters. The film’s end is a wake-up call to reality, with a touch of cynicism. Big heists aren’t always simple fun, the little guy doesn’t always win, and the big corporation usually does. Perhaps Duplicity recognizes the futility of the corporate game and reveals the big heist for the emptiness that it is. The film’s last shot could be cynical and nihilistic as easily as it could be sentimental and sappy, but it avoids these tendencies. The dialoge is something like, “Well, at least we still have each other.” “It’s that bad, isn’t it?…I didn’t mean it that way.” “I know.” Dwarfed by the riches they had sought, thanked by the CEO they schemed to destroy, and humiliated by the last two hours of screen time, the protagonists are put in front of the audience like a mirror. In the same way that we’ve been completely led astray, so have they. When viewers are unhappy with this deceptive viewing experience, they’re most identifying with the characters.