At Quality 16 and Showcase

Courtesy of Universal

4 out of 5 stars

In a world where most films middlingly muddle within a single genre, “Duplicity” achieves a near-impossible feat: It manages to be a sweet romantic comedy, an intelligent crime-caper and an eye-opening social commentary all at the same time. This inspired genre-balancing, combined with exceptional performances, makes “Duplicity” a tremendously entertaining film.

The movie begins with MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen, “The International”) hooking up with a woman named Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) in Dubai. Stenwick turns out to be a CIA agent whose mission was to sleep with Koval and steal state secrets from him. Years later, the two find themselves working as spies for rival pharmaceutical and cosmetic corporations led by Tom Wilkinson (“Valkyrie”) and Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”). Koval and Stenwick end up working together, albeit grudgingly, to con a very large payload out of their respective bosses. Twists come early and often, though, and what’s happening on the surface is usually quite different than the reality.

With “Duplicity,” Julia Roberts has finally emerged from hibernation and reclaimed her throne as a leading lady in Hollywood. She exudes the same combination of beauty, wit and toughness that defined her stardom in “Pretty Woman” and “Erin Brockovich.” It’s nice to have her back, and she more than matches the gruff, forceful performance of co-star Clive Owen.

Anyone who has seen the “Extras” series finale knows how maddeningly hilarious Owen can be (if you haven’t, watch it now). In “Duplicity,” Owen shows off his comedic talents, swapping his trademark scowl for a mischievous grin that rivals Roberts’s famous smile. Owen is sure to bring audiences to tears with his attempt at a slow Southern drawl (which is part of a disguise he uses to seduce a woman). It’s a pleasant surprise to see his character as the sensitive foil to Roberts’s more emotionally detached role. Koval is concerned with love and relationships, while Stenwick always seems to be focused on her work.

Giamatti and Wilkinson also stand out among a very solid supporting cast. Giamatti is the embodiment of the greedy CEO — a sleazy, hot-tempered man who only wants to make money and destroy the competition. In contrast, Wilkinson plays a sage-like businessman with ruthless capabilities. The peak of his career is long gone and he is becoming increasingly disillusioned by the treachery and dishonesty that has invaded his trade. Their feud is showcased during a slow-motion old-man fight that is quite possibly the funniest opening-credits sequence in cinematic history.

From their line of work, Koval and Stenwick have learned to trust nobody, so they constantly question each other’s motives and almost derail their scheme at several key moments. That’s where “Duplicity” subtly begins its social inspection, satirizing the deception and betrayal that plague global business. It’s both cringe-worthy and comical to see the corporations in this movie spend millions of dollars protecting formulas of skin lotions and hair-care products from the competition.

After scoring with “Michael Clayton,” writer and director Tony Gilroy adds another significant accomplishment to his résumé with “Duplicity.” He has brought down the house once again with sly dialogues, fleshed-out characters and a unique framing structure that is too cool to be spoiled. It’s disappointing to see such a terrific film being dumped on a crowded weekend in March. Even though “Duplicity” is too light to turn heads during the awards season, it’s a remarkably good time at the cinema.

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