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Thursday
Feb262015

'Duplicity' or Con Artists in Love

Tim here. Tomorrow sees the release of Focus, a romantic drama about two con artists, played by Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Time will tell if it finds its audience – the critics are steadfastly ambivalent – but I would at least argue on its behalf, sight-unseen, that it's already gotten at least one thing right. There's a slick likeability to any generally good con artist picture, which openly confess to the thing that most movies try to hide at least somewhat: the reason we watch them is to be told enthralling lies. We go to the movies in the specific hope of being conned, and never more so than in the case of romances, which in Hollywood's view are games of people trying to trick other people into falling in love with them, while tricking us into believing that all these contrivances are true and meaningful instead of just skilled craftsmanship. I'm hoping against hope that Focus ends up being really great.

While we wait to find out, I'd like to take you back in time to the last great con artist love story (if we skip over American Hustle, which has other goals in mind), the wantonly under-appreciated Duplicity from 2009. It was writer-director Tony Gilroy's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Michael Clayton, transposing that film's world of corporate espionage and skullduggery into the frame of a fizzy romantic comedy. It was also the second film to pair Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as a pair of sniping lovers after the acidic "everybody hates everybody" drama Closer. And Duplicity tanked, and was widely unloved, and even six years later, those facts still break my heart a little bit. 

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Duplicity is a big bowl of candy: it's sweet, it gives you a rush, and it's unhealthy to have it all the time. But I love it anyway. The film's primary aim is to be as breezy and mindless as anything with so many hairpin turns in its plot could possibly dare to be. Unlike Michael Clayton, where puzzling out the details of the story and being thrilled in the process is the whole point, Duplicity is entirely about watching move stars dance around a complicated scenario and fence with each other. It's certainly a romcom first: the main driving force is that Roberts and Owen's characters (Claire and Ray, but in movie star vehicles, we don't usually think of character names) want to have sex with each other, but at any given point, neither of them is sure whether they're both on the same side.

It's the same basic engine as goes into any film of the genre: why aren't these two hot people hooking up yet? Some people solve that by ginning up ridiculous misunderstandings that could be solved with a single phone call; Gilroy does it by making both of his characters professional liars who are double and triple-crossing their respective employers. Which has the benefit of novelty on its side, anyway. It also means that following along as the plot unfolds isn't quite so by-the-numbers as it usually is in romantic comedies, for the DNA of the con artist genre means that we don't get to be quite as sure that they'll end up together, or what "winning" ends up meaning.

The whole thing only works because it has effortlessly likeable people playing the leads: even when they're being horrible to each other (and that happens quite a bit), neither Roberts nor Owen are so nasty as people that it acts as a turn-off. Quite the opposite, in fact: part of the film's conceit is that the two characters are so mired in their world of deception and hidden identity that it's exactly that lack of trust that ends up arousing them and fueling their sexual desire, like the classic "sexy thieves" screwball comedy Trouble in Paradise from 1932, given more acerbic tartness through the 2000s-style metallic sleekness of the cinematography (by the invaluable Robert Elswit) and the cynicism that Gilroy can't help but feel about his characters' milieu.

Other than the fact that mainstream movies about adults who don't feel bad for liking to have sex are a longstanding rarity in American filmmaking, Duplicity certainly isn't very deep or thematically nuanced. It's a lark, a black-hearted lark maybe, but still mostly concerned with being frothy and fun. To my mind, it's absolutely and in every way a success in that regard, a capital-M Movie of a deeply pleasing, shallow sort. And it's just as satisfying now as it was a half of a decade ago.

That's my favorite romance between con artists, anyway. What's yours? Share it in the comments.

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Reader Comments (17)

Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting.

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNicola

Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger in "Down With Love"
Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole in "How to Steal A Million"
Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones in "Beat the Devil"

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Paper Moon is the first one to come to mind-- what a lark that one is.

I'm a fan of Duplicity, too, for all the reasons you so wonderfully laid out. That said, it pales in comparison to Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton," one of the great Hollywood films of the past ten years. I want more from him!

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

It was actually quite a critical success for a.film like that, but it somehow didnt translate to audiences who were simply too confused by the plot. Because thats what ppl do - they want to puzzle out the plot in that sense, Duplicity is such a let-down.

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterrichie

Carrie Preston was also great in the movie!!

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBhuray

I love American Hustle and Duplicity. Bowls of candy all around!

The odd pairing of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade, though it's one sided
Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter
The entire cast of the completely underrated The Brothers Bloom

I don't expect Focus to be nearly as good as any of these, but if it is, I'm there.

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I enjoyed Duplicity a lot. It was fun and Clive and Julia have a sexy fun chemistry between them. Haters gonna hate!

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Count me in - I like Duplicity, and any decent con man movie.
Clive was also good in "The Inside Man" (it's a heist but a great twisty plot)
"The Sting", "The Grifters", "American Hustle", "Charade", & "How to steal a Million";
Most romantic pairing for me are Audrey Hepburn & Peter OToole.

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Yes! I'm so happy other people feel the same way I do about Duplicity. Julia & Clive need to work together soon. And that Carrie Preston scene! It such a masterful tour-de-force in the quietest, low-key way only a character actress like Preston could pull off. I may just put this one later, it's been too long. May more people continue to give the Gilroys money to make endlessly fascinating (and gorgeous looking!) films about adults for adults.

February 27, 2015 | Registered CommenterManuel Betancourt

my favorite con artist movie is THE GRIFTERS but the romance is the ickiest part of that ;) but Duplicity is really fun. I love the opening sequence (with Giamatti & Wilkinson) love Carrie Preston's bit. and Julia & Clive totlaly sexy. so nice to realize this movie has other fans out there.

February 27, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I should give this a rewatch. I wanted to like it, and I love the way people describe it - but I remember finding it punishingly intricate. High marks for chemistry, but a big question mark when it comes to discerning what anyone is ever talking about.

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDave S

I don't have any great insights here, but I loved Duplicity. Thanks for the write-up.

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

Never been a fan of Roberts, but I loved Duplicity and she's great in it.

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I quite like Duplicity too. I saw it twice in three days at the cinema when I was in Paris once. JUst had to see it the second time to get the rest of the story and to work it all out. I remember thinking it was somehow missing its target - perhaps too complictaed to be breezy, but to breezy to make its complexity work - but it was still very entertaining (twice!). And in the middle of the film is a fantastically exciting (and well-edited) sequence involving a fax machine and a race against the clock.

My favourite con-artist movie is The Sting. What a plot! Not sure of a favourite romance between con artists, but Christian Bale and Amy Adams were great together in American Hustle.

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

So glad to see other people appreciate this film! I think it's much smarter and sexier than it gets credit for and Julia's performance is one of her best ever. Romantic capers like this one are a real treat for me and Duplicity would definitely make my list of favorites, I'd also add the following: Charade, To Catch a Thief, Heartbreakers (not a masterpiece but Sigourney Weaver is so much fun in it), Out of Sight, and even Ocean's 11 & 12.

The last film I remember seeing that kinda fit into this genre was that AWFUL blight on humanity known as The Tourist, so if Focus (which I'll be seeing tomorrow) manages to be even half as good as the movies listed above, it's already surpassed that trashterpiece.

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

I really liked Duplicity a lot. Loved Julia Roberts in it and she has a great chemistry with Clive Owen. The supporting cast is also tops. The plot is intricate but it's one of those films you won't get tired of watching. It took me three times to finally understand the whole thing. I hate that the thing the internet remembers from this film is that meme of Julia with her mouth wide open.

February 28, 2015 | Unregistered Commentermcv

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June 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAbdul Alim

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