Monday, March 23, 2009
By Elise Nakhnikian
Why don’t we have more screwball comedies these days? It was during the Great Depression that they first flowered in Hollywood and, as a recent Breadlines & Champagne lineup of movies from that era at New York’s Film Forum reminded us, we could use that same kind of smart escapism today.
In her 2007 book, The Star Machine, Jeanine Basinger blamed the lack of modern-day screwball comedies on the talent pool. “It’s not, as everyone supposes, that they can’t write them; it’s that there’s no one to play in them,” she said.
I beg to differ. George Clooney came as close as any mere mortal could to nailing the Cary Grant role in movies like Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven, playing an impossibly suave, inhumanly handsome, occasionally larcenous leading man who loves his female costar but doesn’t take anything else all that seriously – including himself. And wouldn't you like to see Will Smith take a break from saving the world, or Robert Downey Jr. take a break from soul-searching intensity, to star in a good screwball comedy?
As for women, how about Amy Adams or Anna Faris as a Carole Lombard/Jean Harlow-style glorious ditz? Téa Leoni as Katharine Hepburn without the tony accent: an intelligent, athletic, eminently capable beauty who can also play the fool? And I wish I could have seen what Meryl Streep or Emma Thompson could have done with the kinds of roles Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy used to get.
But forget speculation. If you want proof that there are actors alive who can do screwball comedy, go see Duplicity.
Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are gloriously confident in Duplicity’s leading roles. Their two-hour sparring match is a lightfooted blend of irresistible attraction, prickly defensiveness, and reluctant respect. And, thanks to a refreshingly witty script, their weapon of choice is words.
Ray (Owen) and Claire (Roberts) are former government spies now working for rival corporations. The absurdity of using computers with better encryption coding than the Pentagon’s to steal formulas for hand lotion sets the tone nicely. So does our introduction to the two CEOs, Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti), who we first see as they get into an awkward fist-fight, clashing in slow motion like a pair of aging bull elephants on the Discovery channel.
Writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) leads us through a Hitchcockian series of twists, turns, and switchbacks as Claire and Ray labor to uncover the secret formula Tully is working on. They’re intent on cashing in on it, though all we really care about is whether the two of them will wind up together.
The movie jumps back and forth in time, doling out the story of how Claire and Ray hatched their plot – and the answer to a question that never stops haunting them both: Are they just gaming the CEOs who hired them, or is one of them playing the other one?
Their bipolar romance can switch moods in a moment: They’re forever starting to make love, then stopping to accuse one another of betrayal. Ironically, the paranoia is part of the attraction, an essential trait they have in common. But will they be able to get past it?
An overhead shot of Ray early in the movie shows him striding through the streets of New York with an athlete’s grace and speed. He never lets up, focusing on Claire with seductive intensity and never stopping his pursuit even as she keeps knocking him off balance.
But she does keep knocking him back. Ray may have the upper hand in the game they play out in public, but Claire pulls the strings behind the scenes. You could always sense Roberts’ intelligence, even when she played lightweights, but Gilroy brings it to the surface: You never doubt that Claire could not only seduce but outmaneuver Ray, and it’s fun to watch her glory in that power. Roberts hauls out her famously wide-mouthed laugh once or twice in Duplicity, but she’s much more inclined to smirk – or to cut the smile altogether, using those big brown eyes like lasers to bore through someone’s defenses.
In classic screwball comedy fashion, Duplicity also reserves some choice parts for supporting characters, and the actors make the most of the opportunity. Carrie Preston is endearingly gullible as the corporate travel agent Ray seduces in the line of duty, and the excellent Kathleen Chalfant (the original angel from Broadway’s Angels in America) has as much fun with her role as part of Ray’s surveillance team as Tilda Swinton did with another nontraditional part for a middle-aged woman in Michael Clayton.
Add in the vicarious pleasure of watching beautiful people blow obscene sums of money in beautiful settings, and you’ve got a thoroughly satisfying distraction for these tough times.