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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review: Beldar & kids see "Duplicity"


That's the one-word verdict of my son Adam on the corporate espionage thriller, Duplicity, which he, my daughter Molly, and I saw early this afternoon. Molly and I not only joined in that verdict, but concurred with Adam's degree of substantial satisfaction in pronouncing it.

This is a slow time of year at the box office, and today was one of those days when we'd decided to go to the movies with no clear intention as to what we'd see. If we'd arrived an hour later, we might have instead seen 17 Again, despite Adam's objection that its male lead, Zac Efron, has a distractingly truncated first name.

But "Duplicity" dives immediately into a twisting and turning plot — if you leave for five minutes mid-movie to get fresh popcorn, you'll pay a heavy price — and although its trailers and advertising (warning: noisy website) certainly led one to expect double-crosses and surprises, it has an adequate combination of freshness and misdirection to avoid obvious clichés or predictable plot kinks.

Theatrical poster for 'Duplicity' I began convinced that Julia Roberts had been miscast as the female lead in this movie: She looked all of her 41 years, and perhaps a few more. I suspect, in fact, that the filmmakers deliberately avoided the flattering makeup, wardrobe, and lighting that might have knocked a few years off her apparent age, because her actual age better fit the character she was playing — someone neither overly lush nor brittle, but of whom an unkind (and yes, sexist) westerner might still say, "That's a mare, not a filly, and she looked like she'd been rode hard and put up wet." Ms. Roberts is still a striking, sexy woman. But I don't think anyone would use the terms "girlish" or "wicked hot" to describe her in this movie — in contrast to, for example, Charlize Theron in The Italian Job. And Ms. Roberts was less glamorous than, say, a comparably mature Rene Russo opposite Pierce Brosnan in the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.

Clive Owen I can take or leave, and I might have been more receptive to whatever on-screen chemistry he developed with Ms. Roberts if I hadn't already watched her and Rupert Everett's campy but sexless on-screen relationship in My Best Friend's Wedding three or four times on late-night cable/satellite channels. I'd seen, but almost forgotten, Mr. Owen's and Ms. Roberts' performances as romantic interests in 2004's Closer; but perhaps to the extent it was in my subconscious, that quirky film ended up diluting rather than intensifying their on-screen chemistry for purposes of this one. A British accent and a muscular and dark-haired chest make for interchangeable leading-men hunks these days — all of them, as far as I can tell, living off the glorious, reflected, but fading sort of charm defined by Cary Grant and Sean Connery. In any event, Mr. Owen ended up being good enough, and occasionally drolly funny. And Ms. Roberts ended up being better than I expected, delivering a somewhat low-wattage but nevertheless persuasive performance.

The supporting cast, however, was simply terrific — better than the leads, better than the directing, and better than the script. Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, as rival CEOs from "Equicrom" and "Burkett & Randle" (think Unilever and Procter & Gamble), very nearly stole the show from Mr. Owen and Ms. Roberts. Mr. Wilkinson's performance was as subdued and guileful as Mr. Giamatti's was spittle-flecked and trenchant, but both were entirely credible and compelling. Carrie Preston had a small part that she turned into pure gold, as did Kathleen Chalfant, but the whole cast shone — and did so without the sort of "Oh, it's my turn now, and aren't I precious!" mugging that I found offputting in films like Ocean's Eleven and its sequels.

In the pantheon of twisty films, this one wasn't remotely as good as The Sting — but then, if you only watch films that deservedly win Best Picture and six other Oscars (with nine total nominations), you're going to run out of entertainment pretty soon. My ultimate but simple test is whether I regret spending the money for the ticket after seeing a movie in the theaters — and I don't regret the price I paid for me, Adam, and Molly to see "Duplicity." It gets a solid "thumbs up" from each of us.

Will you suffer if you wait for "Duplicity" to come out on cable/satellite? No, probably not; and in fact, I'll almost certainly watch it again, TiVo'd so I can replay my favorite scenes and really count the clues, when it does. Even after seeing this movie, you won't quite know the ultimate corporate secret — the difference between creams and lotions — but if you're in the mood to go out for a movie during this season of slim pickings, you could certainly do worse than this one.


UPDATE (Sun Apr 19 @ 6:45pm): Mild spoilers follow, along with some real-world perspectives that are less flattering to this movie and to Hollywood in general:

Like almost every other Hollywood movie of the last forty years, this one treats the corporate world with near-complete disdain and paints with a ridiculously overbroad brush that has indeed grown tired and clichéd. I'm thoroughly sick of corporations being universally portrayed as wicked and lawless, indeed murderous. And gentle readers, I've been a courtroom lawyer defending many of the real-life analogs to those vilified in movies, and I've seen their privileged internal documents, so don't start trying to argue to me that these Hollywood hatchet-jobs are "fake but accurate" or that they're portraying some fundamental and universal truth about corporate America or the international corporate world. These movies are naïve and paranoid fantasies for the most part, grossly distorted and blown entirely out of proportion by Hollywood to serve their secular god of political correctness.

2007's Michael Clayton — by the same screenwriter/director who wrote and directed "Duplicity," Tony Gilroy — was just another ridiculous example of the same ridiculous genre: Every pesticide company in Hollywood movies is all about killing children and polluting the universe, never about increasing harvests to feed real-life starving children. Every pharmaceutical company in Hollywood movies is all about inflicting birth defects or horrible addictions on the sick and the infirm, never about actually curing them or improving the quality of their lives. But in the real world, if there is an "industrial community" on the face of the earth whose citizens disproportionately deserve horse-whipping for systematically lying and distorting the truth, it's the community whose local industry is motion pictures. Consider this Q&A in an interview in which Gilroy was discussing and describing "Duplicity" and his earlier films:

Your movies are fiction but based on facts — is that it?

I have a chance to get at the essential truth. I can show what's going on without being tethered to the facts.

May heaven spare us from liberal filmmakers who are "un-tethered to the facts" — that is, absolutely free to tell deliberate and egregious lies — but free to present their "essential truths." That was exactly the rationale used by propagandists for Hitler, Stalin, and Mao in their day, and that's still being used by propagandists for the Castro brothers, Kim Jong-il, and Hugo Chávez.

Although their intrigues skirt and sometimes cross the lines of what's legal, the "corporate bad guys" in "Duplicity" at least aren't into mass murder, though, so I suppose we can be thankful for small favors. In fact, some of the plot threads that are least convincingly tied up involve blown covers which apparently have no on-screen results — as if corporate espionage agents are routinely set free after being caught red-handed in activities that are indeed illegal and would indeed, in the real world, result in arrests and prosecutions.

My approving review of this movie is premised solely on its entertainment value. And in my original review, I discounted to zero its further contribution to Hollywood's mountains of lies about the corporate world. If I only went to see, or praised, new releases that depicted the corporate world fairly and accurately, I might as well delete the "Film/TV/Stage" tag from my blog and stop publishing reviews altogether. It's a shame that we live in a society in which "Duplicity" can earn even faint praise by only slightly exaggerating corporate competitiveness. But that indeed is the world in which we live, and that is the cognitive dissonance that Hollywood inflicts upon the world's citizens who watch its paranoid fantasies during their time off from real-world jobs working for the same companies whom Hollywood so ruthlessly demonizes (while ignoring, by and large, the real demons and villains of the world).

Posted by Beldar at 04:28 PM in Family, Film/TV/Stage | Permalink


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(1) nk made the following comment | Apr 20, 2009 9:44:48 AM | Permalink

I understand that your boys are teenagers, so it's not entirely inapropos, somebody has put Robert E. Howard's stories online for free. Hope the link works: http://gutenberg.net.au/plusfifty-a-m.html#letterH (And he was a Texan too.)

(2) nk made the following comment | Apr 20, 2009 9:46:49 AM | Permalink

Guess not. If copying and pasting the URL does not work, click my site for a clickable link on the top post.

(3) Milhouse made the following comment | Apr 20, 2009 1:09:19 PM | Permalink

Try this

(4) steve sturm made the following comment | Apr 20, 2009 4:27:42 PM | Permalink


"as if corporate espionage agents are routinely set free after being caught red-handed in activities that are indeed illegal and would indeed, in the real world, result in arrests and prosecutions."

I too had wondered about that, but given that the whole scheme was a set up, what exactly would the 'victimized' company complained about?

(5) legalheiress made the following comment | Apr 21, 2009 11:12:12 PM | Permalink

Can't wait to see the movie. I could hardly see a movie without asking for opinions of those who have already seen it. This time, your review was enough to convince me to see it. Thanks!

(6) Beldar made the following comment | Apr 22, 2009 9:58:08 AM | Permalink

*** Major spoilers follow in this comment! ***

Steve (#4): It wouldn't be hard to frame either civil or criminal complaints against the corporate spies in this movie.

To begin with, either as "moles" or simply self-interested actors, the spies were guilty of criminal and common-law commercial fraud in misrepresenting their loyalty and independence in taking their jobs and receiving the compensation and benefits that flowed from those jobs, independently of the value of any actual corporate espionage they completed. "Theft by deceit" is another variation on that theme, as would be the civil tort of conversion.

The value of what they actually stole might play a role, both in classifying the severity of their criminal acts (petty versus grand larceny) and in setting damages they've proximately caused for tort purposes. But it doesn't wholly excuse their actions by any means.

And of course, at the time Claire was mysteriously permitted to walk away unhindered and unquestioned from Equicrom (with a co-employee, albeit another suspected spy, loudly accusing her of guilt, in circumstances where she described her cover as having been "totally blown"), or Ray was allowed to walk away from Burkett & Randle (having been caught red-handed with an extra copy of the supposed secrets, which he blithely explains away by saying something along the lines of "Isn't that a bitch?"), neither of them knew the full extent to which they'd been set up. Indeed, being released should have set off their personal alarm bells and alerted them to the extent to which they were being played. How could either of them have ended up sitting in Switzerland hours later? Yes, they had fake passports and travel cash and whatnot -- but how did they get off the corporate premises of the employers they'd just betrayed so that they could use them?

(7) Legal Aid made the following comment | Apr 28, 2009 10:48:53 PM | Permalink

I always admire busy people who try to find time with their family, with their children especially.

(8) Apogee made the following comment | Apr 29, 2009 1:35:56 AM | Permalink

Michael Clayton, is as you point out, by the same Writer/Director. My problem with that film is that its plot line demonstrates the necessity of it being a fictional story - in other words - The reason the plot of Michael Clayton is unrealistic is demonstrated by the story itself, where people doing wildly illegal things are discovered and ruined.

Duplicity is much more fun, and, sans killing, is more akin to rivals tricking each other into making poor business decisions. Although the 'spy suite' is laughable, I will suspend disbelief enough to be entertained. I agree with your assessment that it deserves a thumbs up.

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