Early in Tony Gilroy's promising cat-and-mouser "Duplicity," former CIA agent Claire Stenwick and former MI6 operative Ray Koval lock eyes across Grand Central Terminal and, after a zigzagging foot chase, exchange rapid-fire bullets of suggestive dialogue. These two beautiful liars, played by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, thrust and parry deftly, setting the stage for what could have been a fun, fast-moving caper film.
But "Duplicity" turns out to be a heartbreaker. Though it waltzes through European capitals and gorgeous hotel suites, it never quite gets the blood pumping. And despite all the husky-voiced pillow-talk about sex and adrenaline, there's little of either.
Part of the problem is that Claire and Ray are attractive only on the outside. After walking out on their respective governments, they enter the high-paid but bottom-scraping world of corporate espionage, working at competing behemoths that vaguely resemble Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. When word leaks that one company possesses a mysterious formula - for "the Holy Grail" of body-care products - the two lovers launch a plan to fleece their employers (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, stealing the movie as a couple of snarling, spittle-mouthed CEOs).
Morality often gets murky in CIA-style thrillers, but at least there's usually a country to protect. Here our nominal heroes are after nothing more noble than money. That makes Claire and Ray seem like Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen - turncoats for a price. In a more serious movie, we'd read the sad headlines of their arrest.
Gilroy, the writer-director whose credits include the wonderfully wrathful "Michael Clayton" (2007) and the flashily brutal "Bourne" flicks, directs with plenty of pizzazz: The crisscrossing split-screens and brassy, swaggering score are great. But the film's soul is empty. It's saying something that, in a financial climate like today's, you may find yourself rooting for the CEOs.
PLOT Two former spies enter the world of corporate skulduggery.
CAST Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti.
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE A stylish but hollow caper film whose two beautiful stars seem oddly unattractive.