What's more essential to romance: the stability of trust or the excitement of surprise and uncertainty? In "Duplicity," a stylish caper/love story, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play conniving corporate security pros who keep us -- and each other -- guessing about where their loyalties lie.

Claire, ex-CIA, works for a consumer goods titan developing a holy-cow, game-changing new product. Ray, formerly with MI6, snoops for a rival firm intent on stealing the idea. The pair shared a night of passion and double-crossing five years earlier in Dubai, and when their paths cross in Manhattan, there's no question that they're spoiling for a rematch.

The duo's spy-vs.-spy skullduggery is complicated by the fact that the onetime lovers get an adrenaline rush from mind games. And on a deeper level they realize that no one but a consummate sneak could ever understand them. Despite numerous plot twists and labyrinthine intrigue, "Duplicity" remains an engaging film because of its central characters. There's a sizzling chemistry between the stars, who are gorgeously photographed in glamorous settings from Rome to London to Zurich.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who mined high-stakes drama from corporate intrigue in "Michael Clayton," displays a wry sense of humor this time around. He undercuts the glossy globetrotting with a droll chapter in Cleveland, of all places. In the same way, he playfully reveals the bombshell product, which is discussed as if it were the Holy Grail, to be completely trivial. It is code-named "Samson" but it might as well be "Maltese Falcon."

The film has its roots in the fast-talking screwball romances of the 1930s, but it's remarkably timely. It's the ideal romance for this Madoff moment when the "American dream" of earned success has been overshadowed by the nightmare of unethical transactions and the lure of quick wealth. When money constitutes the "dream," loyalty, friendship and love are frivolous extravagances.

Gilroy expertly keeps viewers guessing about who is gaming who. He repeatedly reshuffles the story with interlocking flashbacks that rewind the tale several years or a few days, revealing new information about who is manipulating whom. Are Ray and Claire really controlling the play, or are their CEOs (wonderfully played by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti) running a deeper game? Will the ex-spies respect the notion of honor among thieves, or exchange love (or its potential) for profit? Somebody is constructing an elaborate trap for someone. But who?

By the film's climax, audiences will find their assumptions challenged, their suspicions rewarded, their powers of observation tested and their expectations deliciously overturned.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186