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In "Michael Clayton," his first outing as a director, veteran screenwriter Tony Gilroy used a thriller format to investigate how skullduggery and deceit can corrupt the souls of individuals who do the dirty work of major corporations. His second film as a writer-director, "Duplicity" — which just as easily could have been the title of his first — covers the same territory in a thriller format, only this time the whole thing is so tongue-in-cheek that whatever moral dilemma the characters suffer is subsumed in an elaborate and satirical con game.

The movie is fun, with plenty of intrigue and suspense that will have audiences clutching at their arm rests. With Julia Roberts and Clive Owen top-billed and a host of terrific character actors led by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, the film is poised to play strongly to adults in sophisticated markets. It also is cool in tone, though, holding its characters at a distance, even shaking its head knowingly at their flaws and foibles.

Gilroy likes a busy canvas with a jumble of time frames and a welter of conflicting motivations. This movie has all the moves and countermoves of an old Cold War spy film, only these spies work as corporate operatives for fiercely competitive pharmaceutical giants. In Hitchcockian terms, the "McGuffin" has changed from secret codes for a doomsday machine to secret formulas for shampoo.

The film begins in 2003, when CIA officer Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) have a collision with destiny. At a U.S. embassy party in Dubai, she catches his eye, they slip off to his bedroom, she slips him a mickey and tosses the room, taking with her classified documents. He can't get over her, though it's hard to say whether his sexual infatuation trumps his desire for revenge.

In the present, the duo seems to be caught up in a cold war — lower case — between two cutthroat corporate CEOs (Giamatti and Wilkinson). Further flashbacks establish that the couple met again in Rome, rekindled their erotic attraction and positioned themselves on either side of this corporate war to double-cross their bosses so they might walk away with enough retirement pay for a lush life outside of espionage.

The only trouble is, they still don't trust each other. Ray sees this as a kind of brutal honesty that places them above normal human beings. Nobody trusts anybody, he assures Claire, we're just willing to cop to that basic fact.

Their con game is cleverly plotted by Gilroy, who of course is playing his own con game with the audience: Even as you hope against hope that one lover does not betray the other — both seem so ready to do so — you know Gilroy is withholding vital information for a surprise ending.

That final twist will satisfy most viewers, but something is missing at the end: any sense of what's at stake for the protagonists. To pick an example from the Hitchcock canon, you know Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are desperately in love in "Notorious," no matter how much deception and duplicity exist between them. You have no idea with Gilroy's spy couple.

Gilroy is one of Hollywood's best filmmakers when it comes to story. He can create strong characters and breathtaking situations that throw off extreme tension. But his view of humanity contains enough misanthropic cynicism that human tenderness escapes him.

"Duplicity" enjoys superb production values that add to the exhilaration of the film's rush through the familiar yet still-welcome territory of movie espionage twists and turns. Gilroy employs nearly every key crew head who made "Clayton" such a slick and compelling thriller. They might have topped themselves here. (partialdiff)
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