Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is "Duplicity" Acid in the Face of Quality Film?

I don't know Clive Owen. He might be the greatest guy in the world, for all I know. He might be the kind of person who makes people say, "wow, there goes a real super guy." He's probably rich, and pretty busy - the guy's made 13 movies since 2004, which is quite a lot - so something keeps him getting hired, although damn if I can figure out what it is.

His good movies aren't good because of him -- Children of Men was good, because it had a cool, original idea, a great production design, a really well staged extended action sequence toward the end, and a shout-out to one of the best albums ever, Pink Floyd's Animals. Inside Man was pretty good because it had Denzel Washington and a decent little plot that kept you guessing, but anyone could have played Owen's role. Derailed stank because Jennifer Anniston is a terrible femme fatale and the central 'twist' was plainly visible a mile and half away. If anyone has ever seen King Arthur, The International, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, or Shoot 'Em Up, I haven't met them.

Point is, I look at Owen and watch him on film and see nothing more than a sorta-handsome-I-guess guy who delivers every emotion, every mood, from bemused indignation to tender romance, exactly. The same. Way.

And I have no idea whatsoever why Julia Roberts ever became a star. Where others see (or claim to see) etheral beauty and incandescent acting talent, I see a broad face and a huge mouth, and moderate-at-best range. I've liked her on film exactly once: when she was playing someone pretending to be 'Julia Roberts' in Oceans Twelve, a meta-celebreality joke that I'll admit worked for me. But even at around five minutes, that gag overstayed its welcome. In every other movie, in every way, I can only wonder why there was any fuss over her to begin with. Bland as a field of wheat.

Owen and Roberts were the two stars of a movie I watched the other night, Tony Gilroy's Duplicity, and as I watched and my indifference began morphing into contempt as the story elaborations unfolded, I thought for a second that I'd found the ne plus ultra of good movies gone bad. I say good movie gone bad because there's some talent at work here - Gilroy's first directing effort was Michael Clayton, with George Clooney in the title role, and even if that movie became way overrated, I liked it because it had a good story and good acting and was clever enough to portray Clooney against type, as a 40-something loser.

But it's no stretch to say I hated this one, hated its cuteness and patness and self-love for its own cleverness. I didn't like the characters or the actors that played them. I didn't like the winking and mugging and rancid stylistic tricks. Really, I didn't like anything about it. Oh, wait, I guess the cinematography was OK.

Gilroy apparently likes stories about powerful corporations and he really likes to have his movies unfold nonsequentially, because both Michael Clayton and Duplicity share those qualities. But Michael Clayton's timeline-trickery was reduced to an opening sequence that laid out certain parameters of story and then a flashback that moved everything to the point where the movie began: a circle, basically, and even though the movie would've been just as good if it had been told in a linear fashion, that technique at least didn't do any real harm.

It's probably a debit for Duplicity that Michael Clayton paid off so well--big box office and a ton of Award nominations--because that just encouraged Gilroy to go for broke in his next story about corporate greed, hip-hopping the narrative all over the damn place - six years ago, present day, three years prior, present, eighteen months earlier, etc. It's so damn tiresome and confusing (especially since the narrative is shifting geographically and introducing new characters left and right at the same time, too) and pointless, the worst kind of "just-because-I-can" trick that adds nothing and feels like a filmmaker jerking off, like almost every Quentin Tarantino effort outside of Pulp Fiction.

It's also a damn shame that the Oceans movies of Steven Soderbergh paid off so handsomely, because Duplicity is rife with the little stylistic flourishes that were all over those movies too, all of the split screens and grating wanky-hip soundtrack. This isn't a movie, it's pasteurized-processed cheese product disguised as a movie, corporate crapola about, well, corporate crapola.

Sorry, Tony - you're not a bad writer, but why don't you change subjects and just tell a story, a straightforward, linear story? I bet it'd be pretty good, or at least better than this bullshit.

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