Mar 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Duplicity is wickedly sharp and breathlessly sophisticated entertainment, about as smart and shrewd as any studio star vehicle can ever be, but in the end maybe too smart for its own good.

Clive Owen and Julia Roberts practically melt through the celluloid, playing sexy rival spies working for dueling cosmetic corporations, both racing to capture the formula for the holy grail of personal hair-care products. Having met previously as government operatives, he seduced her only to find himself drugged and stripped of a briefcase full of secrets. Now they're butting heads in the less dangerous but much more lucrative world of big-business subterfuge.

Of course these tricky careerists have their own agenda, to bilk their employers for a killing and retire to an endless tropical sunset of mimosas and fluffy hotel pillows. Further plot synopsis would require a spreadsheet and an abacus, as the script wraps itself into twisting threads of deceit and betrayal. The movie continually loops back on itself with a complex flashback structure that continually reveals tiny details of each double-cross and feint while muddying the big picture. These super-slick pros are so adept at lying they've lost the basic ability to trust even themselves, and allowing lust to evolve into true love seems to be the one impossible mission they can't crack.

Owen is perfection as a smooth operator finally flustered by a foe as good as he at playing cloak-and-dagger, and who can stay a step ahead of him emotionally. His wit is diamond-sharp, and flashes of vulnerability are the only hint of something real in the show. It's hard not to watch him sleekly dashing about and not wish he'd slipped into a 007's tux, since he makes spying a blast. Roberts, meanwhile, retains her movie-star glow, but as masterful as she can be, we're only shown the micro fractures in her invincible tough-gal armor. As the feuding CEOs, Giamatti and Wilkinson do what they always do, destroy, in few terrific foaming-at-the-mouth displays of hammy splendor.

Writer-director Tony Gilroy has a hell of an ear for crackerjack dialogue, with certain exchanges so wonderfully volcanic he can't help but revisit them as the plot backtracks over itself. In fact, Gilroy can't seem to contain himself when it comes to cleverness, crafting characters too smart and tough to fail, and a script too busy dazzling us with pyrotechnic cleverness to let the audience really feel anything.

Duplicity deconstructs the caper flick with the same laser-beam accuracy that his brilliant Michael Clayton used to disassemble legal thrillers, but the new film lacks Clayton's emotional punch and moral weight. As tense as the cat-and-mouse shenanigans get, there's never a real sense of danger — all that's really at stake is money, and these folks sold their souls long ago.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].