The summer of 2010—a season during which moviegoers might have been substantially more entertained by reading the bad reviews of studio movies (Sex and the City 2, The Last Airbender, Jonah Hex, etc.) than watching the movies themselves—is finally (mercifully!) drawing to a close. There isn't much potential blockbusting left in August beyond this weekend's new-release trio of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Eat Pray Love, and The Expendables.
A fan-made trailer for The Expendables, a cast-to-the-gills action extravaganza co-written by, directed by, and starring the 64-year-old Sylvester Stallone, made the rounds last month, jokingly taking aim at "chick flick" Eat Pray Love. Since then, some industry commentators have more seriously considered this weekend from a battle-of-the-sexes vantage. I haven't seen either of these films, so for all I know they're both terrific, but after another summer of sequels, spin-offs, and "reimaginings" of stale properties, I doubt I'm alone in wishing a film were allowed to find an audience rather than arrive pre-sold to a certain demographic. But this is a familiar lament. Business will continue to be business.
The filmography of Eat Pray Love star Julia Roberts might not be the first place you'd think to look for something less immediately classifiable than this weekend's clear-cut counter-programmers. But her previous film, the smart, spry, but not-quite-laugh-out-loud-funny caper Duplicity, provides a welcome tonic for those suffering from late-summer formula fatigue.
Written and directed by Tony Gilroy—whose directorial debut, the legal thriller Michael Clayton, remains one of the very best American films of this young century—Duplicity marks the second slyly revisionist heist film on Roberts' resume, after Ocean's 12, Steven Soderbergh's self-reflexive riff on the nature of celebrity. Gilroy's film is a complicated spy romance. A former CIA agent (Roberts) and a one-time MI6 operative (Clive Owen) plot a heist that involves two competing multinational corporations (their CEOs are portrayed by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson in the film's two most broadly comic performances). The private-sector spies' plan is to steal $40 million, which they reason will allow them to hop from five-star hotel to five-star hotel, all the while leaving behind their occupational-hazard trust issues.
Duplicity opened in March 2009 to good reviews, a few of them flat-out raves. In The New York Times, A.O. Scott invoked "the glory days of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant" to describe the "duel of sharp wits, hidden agendas and simmering desires" between the film's leads—and their chemistry is quite extraordinary. Duplicity never quite caught on with audiences, though. A year and a half ago it seemed that was because the film was simply too difficult to follow—too sinuous and too subtle—but the commercial success of the less elegant but similarly mind-scrambling Inception suggests that perhaps it was just a problem of timing.
Duplicity actually anticipates Inception in a number of striking ways, though it was probably released too late in the game to be a direct influence on writer-director Christopher Nolan, who began shooting Inception in the summer of 2009. But like the multi-tiered heist-in-dreams film, Duplicity fractures a story of high-stakes corporate into an audaciously complex brainteaser, touching also on how personal allegiances can cloud professional judgment; the settings of both films alternate between exotic locales and palatial but antiseptic lobbies. Also like Inception, Duplicity serves as a refreshing reminder that not all Hollywood star vehicles are entirely expendable.