The second film for Tony Gilroy as writer-director isn't much of a patch on Realm and Conquest (my preferred title for the film officially known as Michael Clayton), and what another dull, uninspiring choice of moniker. No obvious alternative springs to mind, this time – though even Koval and Stenwick would have been a more inspired and intriguing choice (law-firm echoes notwithstanding.)
Those are the surnames of the lead characters: Ray (Clive Owen) and Claire (Julia Roberts) who, as the lacklustre poster – both leads' faces obscured by sunglasses – informs us, are respectively ex-MI6 and ex-CIA respectively, and together are out to "steal a fortune." That's not quite accurate as a description of the actual plot, a convolutedly twisty affair set in the world of corporate espionage, in which rival cosmetics/pharmaceuticals firms – headed by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson – feud over the latest must-have patent.
The latter formula is the mysterious 'Partizonol' – though it might as well be called 'McGuffinox', so transparently is it merely an engine used to propel forward the tricksily time-hopping plot. There's a droll minor running-gag about whether the wondrous substance is a lotion or a cream (a gag which Giamatti predictably nails) The Hudsucker Proxy's Hula Hoop it most certainly ain't. Double-cross piles upon double-cross as Ray and Claire realise that the thing that draws them together – their capacity for duplicity – might well be the very same thing that ultimately keeps them apart.
There is a certain spark of chemistry between the leads and, as an undemanding "comeback" for Roberts (one evidently also intended to propel Owen a little closer to Hollywood's top table) it might just have come off. But this kind of clever-clever fare needs to proceed with the sort of momentum, snappiness and flair which Duplicity, stretched to an excessive two-hour-plus running-time, seldom manages to deliver. Incidental compensations include a gallery of impressive character-turns from supporting players including Denis O'Hare, Thomas McCarthy and Kathleen Chalfant, and it's easy to put names to these naggingly-familiar faces because of the (ever-welcome, now all-too-rare) decision to include identifying clips among the end-titles.
While much more Intolerable Cruelty than Burn After Reading, it's all quite snazzy and high-toned, with a near-incessant score from James Newton Howard to remind us how damn sophisticated the whole thing is. And it certainly looks consistently striking thanks to Robert Elswit's lustrous cinematography – including a show-offy, wordless, very nifty slow-motion sequence right at the very beginning, in which Giamatti and Wilkinson engage in fisticuffs during a rainstorm as their lackeys look on in mounting horror.
But the picture never again reaches anything like the heights of that disarming curtain-raiser – which is so different in tone from all that follows that it may well be intended as a fanciful metaphor for the "total corporate deathmatch" that ensues. Observing beautiful people bicker (via dialogue that sounds very much like Dialogue, even when it's not supposed to) and slink around picturesque cities and five-star hotel-rooms isn't much of a substitute for genuinely engaging characters or an original storyline.
It doesn't say much for a movie, for example, that the most nailbiting sequence involves a frantic, race-against-time hunt … for a functioning office photocopier. The overriding impression of "K&S" is that Gilroy, startled by the unexpected success of R&Q, went poking around his sock drawer in search of passably presentable, quickly polishable screenplays. And found one.
23rd March, 2009
director : Tony Gilroy
country : USA(/Germany)
year : 2009
run-time : 125m (BBFC)
seen : 17th March, 2009
cinema : Empire, Newcastle (press show)
format : 35mm
MVP : Robert Elswit (cinematographer)
respected second opinion : Mike D'Angelo