'Duplicity' to test Julia Roberts' star power

Observers will be watching film's performance closely

In the new Julia Roberts movie "Duplicity," the actress' character faces a central dilemma: Should the star spy hang it up or jump back in the game for a big payday?

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better metaphor for the A-lister's don't-call-it-a-comeback career comeback.

Those close to Roberts say the star was hardly thinking of it that way when she signed on to "Duplicity" several years ago. It was just a script she happened to like, and it came with the opportunity to work with writer-director Tony Gilroy.

But the Roberts-Clive Owen starrer essentially has turned into a comeback for the 41-year-old-actress, who has cut back her work schedule in recent years to concentrate on her family. Because of that curtailment in her once-busy schedule, observers say the performance of Roberts' latest pic -- a Universal release -- will be closely watched this weekend.

Although she was praised for her role in 2007's political dramedy "Charlie Wilson's War," for which she billed above the title, that film drew only mixed boxoffice and was seen only partly as a Roberts vehicle.

And Hollywood constantly demands of its top-paid talent: What did you do for me today?

"If ('Duplicity') does well, everyone will say, 'Julia's back,' " a top industryite mused. "If it doesn't, then I guess she'll be where everyone else is."

Of course, there will always be a reservoir of good will for Roberts. But it's no secret the sledding is a little tougher -- and roles fewer -- for actresses in their 40s.

Things used to be a little different for the star who for years held the crown of America's sweetheart. Between 1997 and 2001, Roberts starred in four $100 million-grossing movies and won a best actress Oscar.

She was one of the few female stars who could compete with the big boys both in earning and drawing power. And even though some of her appeal then was based on romantic comedies, she also pulled off re-inventions: Witness her portrayal of a single-mother crusader in "Erin Brockovich."

In more recent moves, Roberts joined the ensemble cast of "Ocean's Eleven" and its first sequel and was part of the voice cast of the animated feature "Charlotte's Web." But anchoring a big-budget thriller like "Duplicity" represents a challenge she hasn't faced often in recent years.

There is also a bit of a zeitgeist question.

Roberts was at her most popular during the unworried times of the second Clinton administration and its immediate aftermath -- a fitting moment for a star known for her restrained sweetness. The current decade has been more dominated by a brasher, action-friendly breed of actress like Angelina Jolie.

Much of this weekend's boxoffice will determine the types of roles Roberts is offered in the near future. Although she has a brief role in the upcoming dysfunctional family drama "Fireflies in the Garden," she is not attached to star in anything that is about to go into production imminently.

Her future -- the CAA-repped Roberts lately has shown a penchant for going her own way -- will depend largely on what she wants to do.

Some female stars, like Meryl Streep, have kept up a frenetic work pace even as they've gotten deeper into their careers. Others have complemented their acting work with producing -- Drew Barrymore is a notable example -- and Roberts could go that route.

Roberts' production company Red Om lately has become more active, recently signing up a petri-dish comedy "Jesus Henry Christ" and sealing a first-look deal with Indian giant Reliance Entertainment.

Even in acting, Roberts' development projects suggest a new chapter. She's on board for a more traditional Roberts role, the female-oriented "Eat, Pray, Love," which was recently picked up by Columbia from Paramount. But she also is signed on to play the conservationist Joan Root -- a far cry from prancing around with Hugh Grant. Whatever happens this weekend, she'll be a long way from Notting Hill.