Routine romance would've spoiled the fun of Gilroy's 'Duplicity'

March 20, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

The plot of Duplicity was formidably labyrinthine to Steven Spielberg, who once considered directing it, but not to the script's author, Tony Gilroy. The man who became the writer-director of the clever new love-'em-and-game-'em movie starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen says it "was very brisk and quick and fun to write."

For Gilroy, imagining a love affair between two spies - CIA woman Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) - got him instantly to "the base-line question of any relationship: Can I ever possibly trust you?" With a pair of globe-trotting adventurers who fell into the spy game, partly because they enjoyed the bearable lightness of being, he could remove all the consumerist luggage that usually weighs romantic comedies down.

This is one romance, he says happily, "without any 'lifestyle.' "

Because of this couple's freewheeling ways, Gilroy found he could return to glamour without glitz. Although Roberts' super-tasteful spy compliments Owen for fixing up some fancy digs in Miami, "there was never going to be a scene where you saw them picking out the furniture." The movie also skips past the eros-depleting practicalities that can take the spark out of a love match. As the couple check into and out of swank hotels, as well as a fleabag apartment in New York and a nondescript spot in Cleveland, "No one's talking about their biological clock," and no one's whining, "Why aren't you communicating with me?"

Miscommunication becomes a game or a test in this film. To the relief and delight of Gilroy, a budding 52-year-old auteur who made a strong case for meshing complex characters and melodrama in his superb debut film, Michael Clayton, he could ignore the usual soap-opera obstacles and put "all the complications into the story." That is another way of saying the story was inseparable from the characters. "It's all about how these two completely duplicitous people and professionals fall in love and wake up and try to envision a life together. That's the engine. And then you look for a fresh world to move them through, and you think of corporate espionage and how remarkable it is that nobody has been doing anything with that all these years."

If love is the film's engine and corporate espionage its superstructure, the target the whole production aims for is the resolution of their affair. As Gilroy says, there's "no big message," except what, to any man or woman in love, is the most crucial message of them all: to consummate or not to consummate - that is the question.

Of course, a teasing, booby-trapped tale of spies vs. spies should challenge a writer's acumen for generating tension. That task is nothing new for Gilroy, whom William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) has called "with no second place - the leading thriller writer in the movie world." Gilroy has built that reputation partly on his scripts for the three continent-hopping Bourne films, which he didn't direct and disavows (he's never seen the third). He earned it partly with his terrific script for Taylor Hackford's domestic murder mystery Dolores Claiborne (it and Brian De- Palma's Carrie are to my mind the best Stephen King adaptations).

He brought everything he knew together with Michael Clayton, a suspense film set in the grays and blacks of the legal universe that earned seven Academy Award nominations, including two for Gilroy and one for George Clooney. That star delivered the weathered dynamism you thought went out of movies with William Holden and Robert Ryan. But he couldn't have done it without a writer like Gilroy, who handed him lines as hard and grim as gunmetal, and a director like Gilroy, who could see the shadows surrounding the whites of Clooney's eyes.

Michael Clayton needed a movie star to get made. Duplicity required two, for aesthetic as well as commercial reasons. Gilroy knew that in a story about love that keeps recurring on the fly, the audience "has to feel a gravitational pull toward the couple in the middle, and it has to be instantaneous. A love story on screen is really a menage a trois - you fall in love with the people falling in love."

The Duplicity script had kicked around long enough to grab the attention of David Fincher, who thought of doing it with Brad Pitt, and Spielberg, who thought of doing it with Tom Cruise. When Clooney introduced Gilroy to Clive Owen, he knew he'd found his man. "George said, 'You'll see, when you get together, after a second drink, he's so funny, so charming, even goofy sometimes.' I had written a part for him once, in the first Bourne movie, and I'd never picked up on that."

Within minutes of forging a partnership with Owen, he and his new star began thinking of the perfect co-star: "Julia Roberts instantaneously became the logical, impossible 'get.' She can put over the language and be really sexy and completely capable and in control, yet also be complicated and thorny - and deliver the emotional payoff, or where's the game?"

With Owen and Roberts in place, Gilroy was confident he could give an audience pleasure in a movie that is a game unto itself. "What's happening to you when you watch the film is what's happening to everybody in the movie."

See it with someone you trust.

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