When you watch the trailer, you know this movie’s going to be fun. You’ve got Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as a pair of corporate spies, dancing a romantic tango while play both sides of a con job on two competing Proctor & Gamble-sized mega-corporations. This movie could have been a cakewalk for both the lead actors: just smile smugly, hit your mark, and act more clever than a everyone else. Instead the movie is actually pretty smart — to the point of being a little confusing. Give credit to writer-director Tony Gilroy, who also wrote the Bourne trilogy (awesome!) and Devil’s Advocate (oops!). Beginning with Roberts as Claire Stenwick, a CIA agent who seduces Owen’s Ray Koval, drugs him, and steals his intel. Skip forward to the present, when Claire and Ray have teamed up to con their way into a $40 million retirement fund. The best thing about this movie is that it stays one step ahead of the audience, revealing various plot twists only in flashbacks.
Roberts is clearly an old pro at this role, having played someone similar in all the Ocean’s movies. Similarly, Owen has just come off of The International where he tried to take on a large multinational corporation as well. In this case there, is obvious focus on the chemistry between the two. Also, one of the themes (if not the only theme) of the relationship between Claire and Ray is the paradox that having found someone who truly understands them also means that they cannot trust each other. Both actors do an amazing job not only of playing the clever zing of dialogue against each other, but also hinting at the deeper emotional struggles to trust each other as they fall in love. (I guess it helps that they also played a dysfunctional couple in the far more serious movie Closer.)
While the relationship between Claire and Ray is an obvious centerpiece to this movie, the parallel story is the whole operation of corporate espionage itself. It’s interesting to watch as one company pits agents and technology against the other company in an effort to find out what new products and strategy the other has up its corporate sleeve. (By the way, the heads of these two companies are played with wonderful, smarmy aplomb by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson.) I don’t know how realistic this is, but their techniques are no less than those employed by governments espionage agencies. (Imagine Bourne stealing the recipe to frozen pizza crust.) From that angle, this movie is very much like a spy thriller. There is a climactic moments where Claire is trying to find a way to send a chemical formula to Ray while security is on its way — she might as well be trying to sneak missile launch codes out of the Kremlin or something.
Even though I am an avid watcher of the tv show Lost, the time jumps in this narrative threw me a bit. All we had were brief year and location indicators at the start of each scene from Claire and Ray’s past. It’s hard to tell the difference between the past and the present. No one’s changed their hair or look (which is usually a device used to tip off the audience) and the scenes are actually pretty subtle as far as how they relate to the overall story. Eventually, as this the pieces fell into place, you see how the scene fits and it makes more sense. Similar to the way the ending of The Sixth Sense makes you want to watch the whole movie all over again, after everything is revealed, I was seriously tempted to stay in my seat to watch from the beginning. I haven’t seen too many films with twisty plots (which I love) in a while and this was definitely a well executed one.
While this type of romantic comedy/thriller genre where boy banters with girl is definitely not new, it’s been a while since one was as polished, fun, and well-acted as this one came along. (4.5 out of 5)