Bitterly hilarious, Tony Gilroys sophomore feature Duplicity manages to come off so breezy and delightful in its old-school, classic studio-era Hollywood charms, one could almost be forgiven for relaxing into the effervescence of the thing and never realizing how despairingly cynical it truly is.

But that would be a mistake.

Gilroy, who previously penned the Bourne trilogy and recently helmed Michael Clayton, is obviously one cynical dude, and Duplicity is the most brazenly nihilistic studio comedy since the Coens Burn After Reading. Its a tart little number that prides itself on staying at least two steps ahead of the audience, working a fractured timeline and goosing the crowd, revising and revisiting certain key scenes of crackling dialogue, upending expectations at every turn.

This is a movie for grown-ups, and if youre not paying attention from start to finish, youre seriously screwed.

Clive Owen stars as MI-6 sellout Ray Koval, who only recently ditched Her Majestys Secret Service in favor of a much more lucrative career spying on patent disputes regarding frozen pizza ingredients. (Duplicitys grandest punch line is that all national security agents eventually wind up working such banal corporate cases in the private sectorwhere the big money is.)

Rays got a bit of a bad history with CIA bombshell Claire Stenwick, (the shockingly great Julia Roberts) and theres a lot we can see before the opening credits about their ill-fated New Years Eve in Dubai, seven years ago, that might have good cause to set poor Rays finely chiseled teeth on edge.

This might be Duplicitys grandest joke. Owen was once famously courted to be the new James Bond (he declined) and Roberts portrayed a Mata Hari figure in George Clooneys woefully underrrated directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Were used to movie stars playing spies, but weve never quite seen them as corporate cronies for multinational Health and Beauty Aid conglomerates.

Duplicity

B+

Starring: Clive Owen, Julia Roberts

Director: Tony Gilroy

Opens Fri., March 20

Gilroys film ingeniously eliminates any sort of real-world stakes and sets Owen and Roberts working at cross purposes for vainglorious hand lotion CEOs played by the half-crazy Tom Wilkinson and the always amazing Paul Giamatti. Our bickering heroes are attempting to resolve a patent case that hasnt come up to the courts yetbut waitare they? Or are they up to something else?

Duplicity leapfrogs back and forth through time, and I honestly cant give away what happens first, last or nextsave for admitting that these are two bona fide, luminous movie stars and that Gilroy (who did such a great job showcasing Clooney in Michael Clayton that I took almost a whole week off from fastidiously plucking my gray hairs in the mirror just because he made that look kinda cool) knows exactly how to use them.

The giddiness of Duplicity comes from the joy Gilroy takes in his dialogue the pure pleasure of watching heavyweights like Clive Owen or Julia Roberts delivering one of his rambling, side-winding monologues. As was the case with Clayton, Gilroys movies feel like fun, nutritious vacations for actors who tend to talk too much.

Most of Duplicity takes place indoors with closed-off sets that sometimes make you think of it as the fluffy comedic sequel to CloserOwen constantly berating Roberts once againthis time casually mentioning, You spend so much time with your legs in the air you dont even know when youre upside down.

But it all comes down to a grand, weirdly tragic tale of two people telling lies for a living, and the filmmakers ruthlessness comes through in every aspect of this abortive love story: How can you truly be with somebody after youve figured out already that theyre just as full of shit as you are?

Gilroys ambiguous final shot backs off where most romantic comedies would rather zoom in, leaving the last call up to the viewers. Most might see it as a happy ending, but I see it as two miserable people getting exactly what they deserve: each other.

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