It's tempting to chalk up the inability of Tony Gilroy's Duplicity to overcome monsters, aliens, Nicolas Cage (alien), and Paul Rudd (monster) at the box office to audiences' "dwindling intelligence" or "lack of concentration for intricate plots," or whatever wide net you want to cast over contemporary movie watchers. Theatergoers have made hits out of just about anything so far in 2009 (mall cops, Madea, and a gun-toting Liam Neeson), so Duplicity's poor performance seems to be somewhat noteworthy (and considering its stellar reviews from major outlets, insert boring "death of the film critic" thinkpiece here). Yet there's nothing particularly shocking to me about the film's evident poor word of mouth—it commits a cardinal sin: it never allows the audience to be one step ahead of the characters and therefore feel superior. Trying not to give away too much of the twisting, turning pleasures of Gilroy's script (an entirely enjoyable compendium of unforced screwball repartee and thematically unified musings on identity and trust within romantic and business relationships), I'll only say that it leaves its audience, along with its two main characters, who seem entirely, reassuringly in control throughout the film, in a charmingly effaced position of complete uncertainty, disarray, and self-doubt. By the end of the film, we've all been duped, and many viewers might feel betrayed by doing only what they've been trained to do: completely identify with, and believe in the goals of, its dashing protagonists.
Something else has occurred to me since seeing this film, though, which also might help explain the hands-off response to it. In its quicksilver, embattled repartee between a man and woman who don't—and probably shouldn't—trust each other completely, Duplicity naturally recalls such touchstones as Trouble in Paradise and The Lady Eve, yet it's not just screwball cynicism but also its narrative ambiguity that makes the film seem at times nearly confrontational. Its "what just happened?" approach to story and consequence is not just applied to its denouement, but also extends to the unfolding of the entire film. At times it seems like nothing less than a play-acted, wiseacre updating of Last Year at Marienbad: when, following a brief pre-credits one-night-stand while on assignment in Dubai, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts' freelance spies Ray and Claire meet again in New York, Ray's insistent "don't you remember me? We've met before" and Claire's continual bemused denial recalling Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais's classic parlor trickery. Constant flashbacks and achronological storytelling ultimately make Duplicity into something like Marienbad-lite, especially pronounced when, in further leaps into their pasts, the dialogue is repeated, their relationship revealed as a self-conscious masquerade, words themselves a fetish, locked in a sort of never-ending loop.
Of course Duplicity's goal is to lightly tease, rather than deconstruct, narrative norms, but Gilroy's playful time games result in something surprisingly hefty. How we've all been had is less important than our engagement with the process of being had. It's less about recollection than concentration, but it's a game nonetheless. Perhaps comparing it to Resnais is a bit of a stretch, but you can at least take my word for it: it's way more fun than Private Fears in Public Places.