March 20, 2009 at 1:00 am

Tom Long: 'Duplicity' -- GRADE: B-

Julia Roberts, Clive Owen sparkle, but 'Duplicity' strikes few sparks

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen look great and the dialogue is sharp, but "Duplicity" lacks heart. (Universal Pictures)

A perhaps too-smart sting of a film, "Duplicity" has nothing much to say but it does say it very well.

Writer-director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") delivers a nice-looking puzzle here, a tale of two attractive people who may be out to con one another and are certainly out to con a mammoth corporation. But despite all the film's intricacies -- and its fine sense of humor -- it has no sense of nuance and absolutely no warmth.

Beyond that, all such con films can only end in one of a few ways and Gilroy can't get around that sense of inevitability. As a result, "Duplicity" is a cool, well-made experiment that ultimately feels somewhat hollow.

Not that it isn't amusing skipping about the globe with stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, both looking fabulous and delivering Gilroy's razor lines with casual confidence. If it's movie stars, sharp dialogue and nifty plot turns you're looking for, this is the place.

There's just nothing beyond that. Which, in light of the director's overwhelming success with the layered "Clayton," is something of a surprise.

What isn't surprising is the deftness with which Gilroy (who also wrote the "Bourne" films) flies back and forth in time, managing to keep a complex situation plain as day.

In the beginning, Ray Koval (Owen) hits on Claire Stenwick (Roberts) at a party and they end up in bed. After which Claire promptly drugs Ray and steals some papers from his room.

Turns out both characters are in the spy business. Flash forward five years and each has retired from their respective agencies. Ray has just taken a new job with a major corporation; what he apparently doesn't realize is his assignment is to run the corporation's greatest asset, an undercover spy who has insinuated herself into the hierarchy of a rival corporation.

That asset is, of course, Claire. And the two of them are now involved in the outright war between two feuding titans of business, played by an imperial Tom Wilkinson and oily Paul Giamatti.

Saying much beyond that endangers the film's magic, but clearly Gilroy enjoys mixing the spy tactics from "Bourne" in with the corporate cold-heartedness of "Clayton." He bounces his story and characters around with the ease of a paddleball champion.

And it's all very amusing for a while. But the question of who can trust who in an untrusting world wears thin eventually, and the complete lack of fire -- it's very hard to build an attachment to a character you can't trust -- gives the film a distance that works against it.

"Duplicity," like all con movies, relies on charm, and there's plenty to go around. But the best films in the genre also allow some sense of reality to breathe through.

Gilroy neglected to include that essential heartbeat. But the film's smile is dazzling indeed.

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