While a recession-fueled box office boom is lifting most boats, one notable exception is Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity, which boasted the earmarks of a commercial Hollywood vehicle–big budget, exotic locations, thriller genre, two sexy movie stars–but may have been too costly for what was really a smart-house play. (It earned strong reviews, but only $27 million so far.) Part of the problem: Universal paid Julia Roberts $20 million.
Most studios are backing off of these ridiculously out-of-date price-tags–especially at a time when audiences are not demonstrating star loyalty. Hell, even critic-proof Will Smith lost his star magic with Seven Pounds this Christmas. The Wall Street Journal reports that first-dollar gross deals are history.
There’s also the issue of Duplicity stars Roberts and Clive Owen’s ability to pull in audiences. They are not alone right now. Few stars are delivering on that model these days. And even those who do deliver movies that are within their fans’ expectations–like Nic Cage–get slammed for it anyway. (I did chuckle at EW’s exploration of Cage’s career hair changes.)
I’d also argue that Duplicity hit the zeitgeist slightly wrong. Greenlit before the recession, the movie painted a portrait of rapacious uncaring corporations and workaholic ambitious untrusting spies that may have cut just a little too close to the bone at a time when anxious Americans are seeking escape, fun and comfort. Gilroy is a smart cookie whose next film I look forward to seeing. While he has every right to chase Hollywood budgets and status, I’d prefer to see him go back to the Michael Clayton model: lower budget, stars at a cut-rate price, and the freedom to throw off the shackles of trying to please the suits.