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The Fake Charlatans

Julia Roberts bores me.


p> What exactly has she done since her Best Actress coronation at the dawn of the decade? (What exactly had she done before Erin Brockovich, anyway?) Did I miss some clandestine Hollywood fiat that declared her Miss American Movie Star? Roberts fares poorly when compared with other actresses in her age bracket: She's not as funny, glamorous, or sexy as Catherine Zeta-Jones or Salma Hayek, and she's not an unwieldy, unpredictable bundle of energy like Uma Thurman.

Yet Roberts is not entirely unwatchable — she's just unfailingly predictable. Any Roberts performance inevitably combines righteousness, vulnerability, and spunkiness with that hardheaded, plucky resolve she tries to project whenever she narrows her huge features into an expression of grim determination. I liked her best as the scheming bitch in 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding, but aside from that peek at her dark side, she might be the least substantial, least complex major movie star of my lifetime.

Is there an actor out there who can disrupt this longhaired, leggy tropophobe's holding pattern? Tony Gilroy's new film Duplicity clearly and convincingly shows Clive Owen is not the man for the job. He's an odd leading man anyway — an ugly-hot B-movie tough guy whose screen charm derives from his determination to go about his business, no matter how silly it is, with a humorless sneer. Owen flails and double- and triple-takes his way throughout Duplicity, but he can't penetrate the waxen, inexpressive mask his co-star dons in close-ups.

Gilroy, the skilled laborer who wrote and directed 2007's entertaining Michael Clayton, assembles a similarly tricky, talky plot involving corporate high jinks, super-secret surveillance, and double-crosses stacked atop each other like Jenga blocks. The main storyline features Roberts and Owen as former government spies turned corporate moles looking to filch some intellectual property and ride off into their own Roman holiday. But no amount of flashbacks or switcheroos can hide the fact that the bulk of the film steals its split-screen visual strategies from the original Thomas Crown Affair and its verbal calisthenics from the Coen Brothers' memorably inert Intolerable Cruelty — two dubious guideposts.

This cruel little romantic comedy/caper flick is much more interesting when its two leads stay in the out-of-focus background. Duplicity's supporting cast, including Kathleen Chalfant's bifocaled bugger and Carrie Preston's party-gal travel agent, supports the deadweight stars with bracing coolness and professionalism. Paul Giamatti's sputtering paranoid CEO is entertaining in small doses, and Tom Wilkinson is fine as another version of the middle-aged man demented by his acquisition of limitless power and authority.

But Duplicity's overall lack of fun and excitement prove difficult to get past. While little more than a make-believe spring breeze, the film is most successful in propagating the outrageous fantasy that CEOs are intelligent enough to design multi-level espionage schemes while growing their above-board operations. I mean, we can all agree that could never happen, right?


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