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Spy games: Roberts, Owen heat up screen as rival spies working together in "Duplicity"

Duplicity (PG-13)

Three stars out of four

At various points "Duplicity" is a mystery/thriller, a satirical heist flick and a romantic comedy. Covering so many bases in a two-hour time frame usually results in an incoherent mishmash, and if you don't pay complete attention to it every second "Duplicity" might confuse or bore you beyond belief.

It's already been compared by many to "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," which is not completely inaccurate. The leads have molten sexually chemistry, share a high level of mutual distrust and both are spies playing for different teams.

The film owes a bunch to breezier, more sophisticated chestnuts like "Prizzi's Honor," "The Thomas Crown Affair" and Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief" and "Notorious." If for no other reason, it is fully deserving of discerning adult audiences' attention for the fact that there is no gun fire, explosions, "that" four-letter word or chase scenes; unless you consider somebody following someone else on foot through Rome a chase scene.

In this type of movie, the players are usually chasing jewels, art, cash, nuclear arms or classified government documents. In "Duplicity" it's health and beauty aids. Stuff like soap, shampoo, detergent, salves and lotions. Who knew the world of retail sundries could be so rife with such espionage and intrigue?

In the follow-up to his impressive directorial debut "Michael Clayton," Tony Gilroy lightens up, develops a funny bone and shows us that if major bucks are involved any subject can prove to be suspenseful.

What if Proctor and Gamble was developing a product that would forever change the landscape of not only retail, but modern science as well? Would Bristol-Myers be interested? You're darn tootin' they would.

Enter Ray (Clive Owen) and Claire (Julia Roberts). Back in '03, they met in Dubai when she was working undercover for the U.S. and he was doing the same for the British. She burned him and he's never gotten over it. In the present day, Claire's working for an HBA conglomerate and Ray, well we're not sure what he's doing, but he's still very angry.

As with "Michael Clayton," Gilroy employs an out-of-sequence narrative that jumps backwards, forwards and sideways - often too much. Sometimes the time shifts are identified on the screen, sometimes not. For this he gets deducted a half star. Don't confuse the audience if you don't have to.

Gilroy makes up for it by casting Roberts and Owen as the leads - and Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as rival corporate CEOs. Throughout their previous coupling in "Closer," Roberts and Owen exhibited a toxic, love-hate relationship that seared the screen. And any movie featuring both Giamatti and Wilkinson is a must-see.

Considering the meticulous care and forethought Gilroy put into the build-up, the final payoff is a bit of a letdown. It's justified and fair, but in the world of movie double- and triple-crosses, it comes across as kind of limp and unimaginative. Deduct another half star.

It's far from ideal, but at the very least Gilroy gives thinking audiences their money's worth. It was the same story with "Michael Clayton." Let's always count on Gilroy to impress us and maybe one day he'll hopefully knock us out of our socks. (Universal)