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Sexy: Owen and Roberts in Duplicity.

No Fools

By Laura Leon


Directed by Tony Gilroy

Who knew that Julia Roberts, once so gawky and coltish and annoyingly giddy, could morph into an accomplished, sexy performer, becoming along the lines of this century’s Sophia Loren? In Duplicity, gone—thankfully—are all the former mannerisms that distracted one from noticing that Roberts wasn’t so much acting a role as desperately trying to convince the audience that their adoration was justified. In their place is a gloriously accomplished and assured comedic actress who gives Clive Owen’s M16 agent Ray Koval a run for his money, and viewers a legitimate reason to applaud.

Written and directed by Michael Clayton’s Tony Gilroy, Duplicity is a romance-within-a-caper movie, in which the old-style Cold War adversaries and geopolitical master games of the past have given way to where the action’s at today: in corporate boardrooms and shareholder meetings gussied up like the grandest theater. Rival CEOs Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) of Burkett & Randall and Dick Garsick (Paul Giamatti) of Equikrom hate each other’s guts, as it made wickedly clear in an early, super-slow motion scene in which the pair duke it out on an airport tarmac as their gray- flannelled minions stare in astonishment and horror. We never find out just what happened to cause these two to come to blows, but whatever, you just know that it’s enough to bring their very real corporate rivalry into the blood-boiling stages of historical warfare. Or a Red Sox-Yankee gang war.

When first we encounter Claire Stenwick (Roberts), she’s a CIA agent at work in Dubai who is chatted up by an assured Ray. Before too long, their incendiary verbal sparks give way to a night of lust, from which Ray awakens with a splitting headache and a missing briefcase. Years later, they are employed, respectively, by Burkett & Randall and Equikrom—only they’re not. See, this being a caper, they, and a few others, are actually both employed by Dick, who is trying to infiltrate Howard’s latest next big thing, but beyond that, they’re really working an angle of their own.

Sound confusing? It can be, especially as Gilroy makes playful use of his storytelling ability—aided considerably by brother John’s masterful editing—of going back and forth in time, so that we’re never quite sure what Ray and, in particular, Claire, are up to, or how it affects the Equikrom scenario. Claire brilliantly manipulates Ray, literally tying him in emotional knots before revealing that she was only joking and basically ensuring that he’s always several steps behind her. There’s a singularly funny scene in which Claire, visiting a lonely Ray in Cleveland, accuses him of cheating on her, offering as proof a thong on the end of her finger. Ray begs her, almost at the point of tears, to believe that he’s been true, whereupon she finally gives him a thumbs up for veracity and returns the thong to its proper place, that being her own derriere. The banter between Owens and Roberts is blistering and delicious, and adds immeasurably to the zing reverberating throughout this movie.

In addition to its two stellar leads, Duplicity benefits from an outstanding supporting cast, most notably the wily Wilkinson and the wonderfully paranoid Giamatti, but also from lesser-known players like Kathleen Chalfant and Rick Worthy as participants in the scam. Sure, at times it’s disconcerting to wonder where we’re actually at in this particular point of the puzzle, but it’s best to just sit and let it wash over you, as the final trump is well worth it. Duplicity magnificently conveys all it sets out to, so whether you’re in for the mystery and suspense or prefer the palpable romance, it just works. After a few months of dismal listings at the local multiplex, this one is well worth the wait.

Temporary Insanity

Two Lovers

Directed by James Gray

A husky man carrying dry cleaning nimbly straddles the railing of a bridge over a frosty river. Seconds later, he hops into the wet abyss, an almost balletic leap that belies everything else about the scene: the size and hulk of the man, the bulk of his parka, the splintery wood of the bridge, the dry cleaning. Before long, the man—Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix)—thinks better of his idea and, with the help of some onlookers whom he doesn’t bother to thank, lurches back to the atmosphere and walks home. Mom (Isabella Rossellini) and Dad (Moni Moshonov) pretend to buy his story that he fell, but both know too well that their bipolar boy has tried, again, to end it all. What’s a Jewish mother to do, besides fuss about his wet clothes and cooling dinner, but set up a blind date with the lovely Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of Dad’s business associate.

Sandra is everything that a lonely and fragile guy like Leonard needs. She’s loving and compassionate, and she wants to care for him. He seems to like her back, that is, until he meets the new neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who looks about at home in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, as a hothouse flower on the fjords. She’s being kept by her married lover Ronald (Elias Koteas), and soon after befriending Leonard, she asks him to join them for dinner so that he can weigh in on whether or not she really has a future. Michelle is one of those gorgeous babes who collects besotted caretaker sorts who would sell their soul for her, all the while never really understanding the level of their interest. Then again, maybe she just takes it for granted. Put simply, as good as Sandra is for Leonard, Michelle is 10 times as bad, which of course means that Leonard will do anything to be with her, even become almost a different guy in her company. Generally ill at ease and nonverbal, Leonard becomes more confident and even displays a quirky sense of humor when he’s out with Michelle, but his innate decency comes through as well, as he tenderly cares to her latest crises and heartaches.

You know this isn’t going to end well, that there will be casualties, but you can’t help watching, in large part because of Phoenix’s soulful performance. (This is supposedly his last role, as the actor has announced a veer into hip-hop, while at the same time— shown in recent TV appearances—channeling the style sense of the Unabomber.) Phoenix imbues Leonard with enormous reserves of compassion, as well as an emotional core rooted in insecurity and alienation. Director James Gray, who cowrote the script (based on the Dostoyevsky story “White Nights”) with Richard Menello, creates a landscape of cramped apartments and tight spaces, and rituals of home life that underscore Leonard being trapped in a sort of perpetual childhood. It’s no wonder that Michelle is such a draw.

Late in the movie, as Mom begins to realize what Leonard is up to, her looks of love and sadness at her son are heart-melting, no more so than in the bittersweet conclusion. Leonard’s dream of escape and passionate love meet a detour of sorts, and his final actions can be read to indicate a return to sanity, a recognition of certain unwavering realities. However, Gray provides a little unsettling jolt, as the camera pans away from a happy scene just enough to make us wonder what we’re really seeing, and calls to mind the Turgenev lines with which Dostoyevsky begins his story: “And was it his destined part/Only one moment in his life/To be close to your heart?/Or was he fated from the start/To live for just one fleeting instant, within the purlieus of your heart.” In its quiet, almost old-fashioned way, Two Lovers delivers a devastatingly intimate portrait of loneliness and alienation, but also with the possibility of redemption.

—Laura Leon

Slight of Mind

The Great Buck Howard

Directed by Sean McGinly

What makes washed-up mentalist Buck Howard great is that he’s played by the great John Malkovich. Who better to portray a hypnotist (who may or may not be fraudulent) than the star of Being John Malkovich? The feline-eyed actor is as convincing putting people into trances onstage as you’d expect, and he gives Howard’s dressing-room hissy fits an edge of hard-earned entitlement (and dramatic flourish) that make his every insult a small pleasure. And that’s what The Great Buck Howard is about: the small pleasures to be found in a modest movie (it’s written and directed by nobody Sean McGinly). The film’s unassuming intentions, and droll, naturally occurring sense of humor, are such that the funniest moments are of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety.

The film’s narrator, Troy (Colin Hanks, and yes, he’s the son of Tom) is Howard’s new road manager and privy to Howard’s secret ambition to stage a comeback stunt somewhere in Ohio. “He was cheesy but had a timeless charm that audiences seemed to love,” opines Troy in one of his unnecessary narrative observations. Working with Howard is a job that Troy just happened into after dropping out of law school, and his bland character serves about the same purpose as a packet of saltines with a bowl of chili con carne. Howard’s tour is covered by a suspiciously subdued magazine reporter, and the press agent he hired is replaced by a hedonistic underling (Emily Blunt) who puts the moves on Troy seemingly out of boredom. Blunt, the befuddled charmer from The Devil Wears Prada, isn’t given enough to do, but her media-hipster character serves as an effective foil for the proudly out-of-it Howard (when told that an Internet reporter is waiting for an interview, Howard says he’s never heard of that publication).

Howard’s road show, however, is entertaining in the same vein as Na poleon Dynamite and other uncontrived character studies set in niches not usually seen on the big screen. A mid-level celebrity with more talent than the stars he crosses paths and ripostes with (such as Tom Arnold), Howard sabotages his own career just as often as he is thwarted by bad luck. McGinly affectionately reveals the forgotten underbelly of the entertainment industry—Howard is based on The Amazing Kreskin—but what’s really amazing is how Malkovich steals every scene before your very eyes.

—Ann Morrow

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