The evaluation of sexual chemistry between two actors is certainly a subjective consideration, but it is like the U.S. Supreme Court justice's ineffable definition of obscenity - you know it when you see it.
Or more to the point where the film Duplicity is concerned - it is unsatisfyingly clear when the sexual chemistry between two actors fails to reach credible levels.
The pairing of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as both opposition and duplicitous company operatives gave expectations that the film's tale would be a rich mix of corporate-rivalry intrigue and steamy, romanatic intimacy. And while the responsibility for fulfilling the cinematic potential of corporate plot is shared almost equally by the method of storytelling and the actors' ability to carry it out, sexual chemistry is another matter. A romantic pairing that is credible critically relies inherently on the actor and the actress, because ultimately it is they who have to make the viewers believe in the intimate sparks on the screen.
Being the windows to her soul, the eyes of Julia Roberts - who plays ex-CIA officer Claire Stenwick - seem to reflect acting professionalism against a backdrop of her personal disappointment with this movie project. Being opposite Clive Owen - who plays Ray Koval, her ex-spy counterpart from the MI-6 covert side - must have been driven by the belief that the two actors could truly build upon their previous work in the mate-swapping story Closer. But whatever the hope, Julia's otherwise earnest performance is betrayed every time she looks in the eyes of her on-screen love interest.
Director and screenwriter Tony Gilroy takes his flash backward and forward approach that he used effectively in his critically acclaimed Michael Clayton, but doubles the frequency. But what was a creative approach to that particular movie, in Duplicity it muddles what is already by nature a convoluted plot about multi-national corporate subversion. As such viewers already have the task of trying to ascertain who is really doing what to whom; making them bounce back and forth in time serve more to irritate then intrigue.
While Duplicity fails to rise to the high standard level of its billing and actors, it is really not a bad film; but it does disappoint. On the plus side: the film's resolution is not conventional, but refreshingly unexpected. The strong ensemble includes Academy Award nominees Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti who play competing corporate CEOs. But while Giamatti turns in the top performance of the film, Wilkinson disappointingly has far less screen time.
But such a romantic comedy-corporate intrigue rises or falls as a result of the credibility of the lust and intimacy. Julia Roberts is additionally burdened by the standard that she has previously set in her past film successes with leading men such as Richard Gere. The interesting notion of the Owen and Roberts pairing add weight to the expectations, making the disappointment too heavy to judge the film by the same standard one would if lesser stellar actors were romantically thrown together in such a plot.
The film is rated R for language and sexual content.