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‘Duplicity’ is all cloak and blabber

What should have been a sexy spy comedy winds up a labyrinthine slog through a complicated story that will have you feeling more double-crossed than the spies.

The idea that two retired spies could get an erotic charge from each other’s facility with lying and double-crossing harkens back to Ernst Lubitsch’s classic romance “Trouble in Paradise,” in which two con artists literally pick each other’s pockets as foreplay.

If only “Duplicity” had a fraction of the friskiness and audacity of that earlier film; instead, we get stuck with one of those tediously labyrinthine plots that grows so complicated that the audience stops paying attention, waiting instead for that gotcha moment in the last five minutes when all is explained and we discover that we’ve been triple-crossed more than anyone in the film.

Writer-director Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) must have been channeling William Holden’s screenwriter character in “Paris When It Sizzles,” whose scripts always include a “switch on a switch on a switch that leaves the audience gasping at the author’s brilliance.” Gilroy shouldn’t expect gasps for his work, although yawns are a distinct possibility.

We’re certainly led to expect better things from “Duplicity,” however, given that it reteams Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, so wonderfully toxic together in “Closer,” and sends these photogenic stars to glamorous international locations (Italy! Switzerland! Cleveland!) to tell its story.

Owen stars as Ray Koval, a retired MI6 agent now working for cosmetics magnate Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti). Garsik, obsessed with what appears to be a major new discovery from a rival corporation headed by Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), has set up a major corporate espionage mission that includes having former CIA spook Claire Stenwick (Roberts) working inside Tully’s operation as a mole.

Ray and Claire have history — they once hooked up at a party at the U.S. Embassy in Dubai, and the next morning, Ray woke up from having been drugged only to discover that Claire had stolen some valuable intel from him. Given their past baggage, the two engage in a lot of barbed banter, but we soon realize that there’s more to this pair and their relationship than the movie initially lets on.

One of the few pleasures in “Duplicity” involves the unfolding of secrets, so I won’t give away more. What makes the movie so disappointing is that there’s so little spark to it. Unlike, say, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which used its flashbacks to impart information that informs the audience that a bad situation is even worse than originally imagined, the Chinese-box structure of “Duplicity” is merely impressed with its own cleverness. Given the film’s potential for glamour, sex and suspense, there’s no reason for it to be such a drag.

“Duplicity” could conceivably have overcome its flaws with enough star wattage, but Roberts spends the overlong running time of the movie hiding her light under a bushel. I’ve seen great Roberts performances and I’ve seen iffy ones, but I can’t ever remember seeing her look less interested at being on camera. She doesn’t seem to be having any fun, and the feeling becomes contagious.