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Duplicity: What a Spy Caper Looks Like in the Hands of a Star Wars Writer

Starring Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, Tony Gilroy's Duplicity is now streaming on Peacock!

By Benjamin Bullard
Ray Koval (Clive Owen) yells at Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) in Duplicity (2009).

No matter their genre, the characters in Tony Gilroy’s fictional worlds share a pretty universal tendency: In the far, far away of Star Wars or right here on familiar planet Earth, they usually lead resigned and lonely lives. 

Whether it’s Galen Erso in Rogue One, Cassian Andor in the Star Wars TV series that bears his name, or the two romantically linked con artists played by Clive Owen and Julia Roberts in the Gilroy-directed spy caper Duplicity (stream it here on Peacock), invisible barriers surround Gilroy’s characters. They’re people who instinctively lean toward wrapping themselves in isolation — even when they’re surrounded by a galaxy of aliens and acquaintances. 

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Trust issues: Are Duplicity’s spies too sneaky for love?

Behemoth systems have a way of confounding individual people’s hopes in Gilroy’s stories, whether it’s governments, mega-corporations, or the evil Galactic Empire. In Andor, it’s there when Cassian’s adoptive mother Maarva (Fiona Shaw) makes her stay-home stand on Ferrix; it’s there when Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård) delivers his unbelievable soliloquy on trust and sacrifice —  punctuated by a tragically defiant declaration (“I share my dreams with ghosts”) of how alone he truly is. Heck, it’s even there when Cassian (Diego Luna) and Jenn Erso (Felicity Jones) embrace near the end of Rogue One — with viewers keenly attuned to just how bittersweet their brief remaining moments together are fated to be.

It’s also there, in a far lighter and brighter way, in Duplicity, where Owen and Roberts play a pair of high-end corporate spies in love, competitive frenemies who mistrust everything around them (and even within themselves) far more than they feel comfortable trusting in each other. Think of it as the same kind of fun, blithely paced heist movie as Ocean's Eleven... except one far less crowded with con artists on the take.

Ray Koval (Clive Owen) looks at a woman holding up a thong in Duplicity (2009).

Written and directed by Andor creator and Rogue One screenplay co-scribe Gilroy (Michael Clayton, The Bourne Legacy), Duplicity is essentially a cleverly-plotted, dialogue-dense rom-com stranded inside an impossible pressure cooker of a story setting. Owen and Roberts play two spies named Ray and Claire, who’ve each traded past careers in government intelligence (he was MI6; she was CIA) for the decidedly less-lethal world of corporate espionage.

Right up until the movie’s ending, Duplicity’s key players hope to see the best in each other… but they know to expect the worst. Just like Mon Mothma’s strained, optics-friendly Senator’s marriage, even when people do come together in Gilroy’s high-stakes danger games, well — they’re still really just together-alone.

Ray Koval (Clive Owen) caresses Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) in Duplicity (2009).

Duplicity’s out-of-sync, time-jumping plot lets viewers in on its plot secrets, a device that zooms out, by degrees, to eventually reveal the full cat-and-mouse context that explains (or at least tells the history of) Ray and Claire’s mutual mistrust. Each of them is so good at spycraft that they can never fully let their guard down around each other — and even when they finally manage that, an oppressive system of corporate intrigue yanks the floor out from underneath their fleetingly stable feet. In their quest to steal and upsell the movie’s main MacGuffin — a well-guarded, money-printing formula for the cure to male baldness — it turns out they were too busy second-guessing each other to see that they were pawns all along in a much bigger company game.

Leaving all the humor and romance aside, the movie’s duplicitous (ahem!) espionage angle is weighty enough to serve as fodder for a standalone, light-hearted spy thriller unto itself. But with a supporting cast that includes the late Tom Wilkinson (as a sneaky-genius corporate boss) and the matchless Paul Giamatti (as a hilarious CEO hellbent on turning baldness anxiety into mega-bucks), Duplicity fills its in-between spaces of human isolation with tons of genuine laughs… even as the story winds, with a twist, toward an ingeniously ironic ending that leaves Ray and Claire right back at square one.

Duplicity is streaming on Peacock here.