Earlier this year, shortly before the publicity machine for her new film Duplicity moved into gear, Julia Roberts inadvertently starred in a 43-second movie that made the rounds online. Though she’s costumed in mom jeans and comfortable shoes, she’s featured at her most thrilling, marching menacingly toward the camera and quickly exceeding the number of expletives allowed in a PG-13 movie.
“I have had it with you,” she tells the paparazzi. “F___ off. Aim higher. Get a life.” There’s no milewide grin in sight. She just wants to pick up her 4-year-old twins in peace and quiet. But seeing her in the role of a real-life 41-year-old woman who radiates confidence even while shaking with justifiable outrage is enough to make you fall in love with her all over again. Even the snarkiest bloggers declared themselves wowed. And evidently Roberts practices what she preaches. The ’90s box-office queen has a life, including a husband who works in Hollywood , three kids and a solar-powered house. With her latest choice of roles, she’s aiming not just higher but also smarter. In Duplicity, writer-director Tony Gilroy’s follow-up to Michael Clayton, Roberts shares star billing with Clive Owen, but it’s not a Julia Roberts Movie. The film is a nimble, witty whirligig of a caper, and it’s no criticism to say Paul Giamatti, playing an insecure loon of a CEO, and Tom Wilkinson, as his devious rival, snatch the spotlight from the pretty people every chance they get. So does the timeline, which bounces around far more than Roberts’ glossy tresses. The role of Claire Stenwick, a former CIA operative now playing the espionage game in the highly competitive world of soap companies, includes ample opportunity for Roberts to be fun, sexy and sarcastic. But while the movie allows Julia to be Julia, it doesn’t depend on it. Roberts has largely stayed away from leading roles since falling for cameraman Danny Moder. There’s been voice work and favors to friends, including two irritatingly meta parts for Steven Soderbergh, in Full Frontal and Ocean’s Twelve. In 2004, just before her motherhood-necessitated work slowdown, she veered into intriguing adult territory with Owen in Closer, projecting a chilliness that felt a bit forced but suggested she was willing to forgo audience adulation. Duplicity is just as much a proclamation as her scene with the paparazzi. It’s intentionally a wedding-dress-free zone. Claire would like Ray Koval to love her, but it’s clear she’d survive without him. Their relationship is not a road to an altar; it’s about being with someone who gets you. It’s mature love, in short, even if it’s set in a glamorous cloak-and-dagger world where the goal is to scam the bosses into funding your fabulous lifestyle. What about being mature in years Forty or thereabouts is often the most attractive age for women, when you’re old enough to really appreciate, understand and know how to flatter yourself. But in Hollywood it mostly leads to unintentional vanishing acts or inspires unfortunate experiments with surgery. Roberts could toss aside her career–unless Bernie Madoff managed her money, she shouldn’t need the paycheck–but she doesn’t want to. Working, she has said, brings some form into the “shapeless blob of happy chaos” that is motherhood. I’ve already seen Duplicity, but I’d be willing to give her my $10 just for summing up the working mother’s perspective so nicely. Motherhood, by the way, looks good on her. Onscreen, she’s lush and full: any woman who has breast-fed will recognize the source of her Duplicity cleavage. Her Claire makes Owen’s Ray even more swoon-worthy; we know he appreciates a real woman. If you’re nostalgic for the pretty woman in pink-and-black spandex, too bad. Roberts isn’t shoehorning herself back into a prostitute’s work outfit. She’s too sensible to even try. All the more reason to hope she’s still a trendsetter. See pictures of movie costumes. See the 100 best movies of all time.