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Duplicity (2009)

Drama Rated PG-13

Duplicity is a movie built around dazzling dialogue, which makes it a rare and precious thing.

There is banter here that could stand up to the snazziest verbal sizzle of Hollywood’s classics, in which Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell or Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert would spar to their own and the audience’s immense amusement.

Talking onscreen has long since been an undervalued commodity, save for the work of specialists such as David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino. So when something like Duplicity comes along, in which the spoken word is the center around which everything else spins, you treasure it.

Instead of Russell or Gable the movie gives us Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, and they prove to be suitable stand-ins. More than that, really.

The stars play Claire Stenwick and Ray Koval, former government spooks who once had a run-in of sorts in Dubai. They have since “retired” and taken jobs in corporate intelligence. She works for one giant manufacturer of health-care products; he works for another. As a scheme develops in which Claire and Ray appear to be in cahoots, the question arises: Are they playing these corporate rivals against each other, or simply playing each other?

Roberts hasn’t anchored a movie since 2001’s The Mexican, and as much as I’ve liked many of her films, I can’t say that I’ve missed her. Or, to be more accurate, I didn’t realize I had missed her until about 30 seconds in, when the first scene of verbal foreplay between her and Owen made me remember what a fresh, natural screen presence she is.

It’s mostly in her eyes, which are playful yet not exactly flirtatious. Those eyes and her mouth – which is always primed for a laugh first, then maybe a kiss – are the source of that oft-mentioned aspect of her sexuality: She’s attractive without being threatening, to women or to men.

Those eyes do most of the work in the opening scene, deflecting the cleverly clumsy advances of Owen’s Ray. Ray is amused – almost happier that Claire is wittily rebuffing him than if she had routinely acquiesced. And so begins a warped, whirlwind romance, built on suspicion, mistrust and one very big con.

Writer-director Tony Gilroy dances somewhere between his own Michael Clayton, which had more thematic heft while being almost as verbally dexterous, and the empty pizzazz of the Ocean’s Eleven films. Like Ocean’s director Steven Soderbergh, Gilroy punctuates the wordplay here with visual razzle dazzle, including a slow-motion, opening-credit showdown between the rival CEOs of the two companies (Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson).

Gilroy, a Hollywood player since the early 1990s whose talent began to show as the screenwriter of the Bourne films, may know his way with an image, but he’s mostly a master of words. Duplicity delights in them, even replaying one priceless exchange between Claire and Ray at different times and in different ways. It sounds like a smug move – baldly self-congratulatory – but it works perfectly within the twisty story. And besides, the dialogue is good enough to bear repeating.

I won’t repeat any of it here because, in general, movie dialogue never works as well on the page as it does on the screen. (I guess those actors do deserve some of the credit). Still, I can’t resist giving away one gem, a line of endearment Ray offers to Claire, which is a spin on stale declarations from Hollywood romances past: “I think about you even when you’re with me.”

OK, just trust me. Owen makes it work.