I read this recently: "Good writing takes the dull and makes it exciting; bad writing makes the exciting dull." It's hard to understand how this film fell so incredibly flat - as someone who's never been a Julia Roberts fan, it would be easy to start there, but really, she's no more or less boring than I usually find her.
I had heard terrible reviews, but this premise has so much potential: two spooks get involved in a borderline-impossible long-distance relationship and plan the Big Score Perfect Exit to be happy together. So what went wrong?
Simple: Too. Bloody. Busy. In Owen's best roles (Children of Men, Inside Man), he says less, not more - and when he speaks, he makes people listen. In this film, you see his pain at trying to deliver the lines as written. Maybe it's a cliche of the genre - and of course, why not try to challenge a cliche? - but spies don't talk this way, or even this much. Spy/Thriller/Mystery films, as everyone from Poe to Chandler to Hitchcock has shown, are best delivered in clipped sentences and long silences, and not the chick-flicky expository speeches we see here.
And when I say silences, I mean that the music in the background - if there is any - should be understated, or at the very least, anything but the distracting, look-at-how-intriguing-we're-being! soundtrack we get with this film, accompanied by the manic, 24-style multiple split screens. They fill the time just fine, but instead of building suspense, they - like most other bits of the film - merely delay resolution. A story that stalls this often - or worse, flashes back this often, to catch you up on the central relationship's backstory - doesn't inherently build intrigue, it just frustrates the audience.
The worst part is, the plot is pretty good - a bit cliche, fine, but if you do it right, I'll always forgive you. The spies, because they're spies, can't trust each fully in work or in love; there's a lot there. But when the plot hits its climax - a time-sensitive search through an office to make a copy of a secret document - we spend forever watching the team trying to find a map, to locate the copier. It was downright uncomfortable, and not in the style of The Office; I think Gilroy might have thought this had comedic potential, but it's the prime example of the frequent frustration this bloated film causes, topped only by the very last scene: as the final shot fades away, and the silence would make the point, THE CHARACTERS KEEP TALKING... and one of the lines is "It's just that bad, huh?", to which the other character cops, "Yup." My girlfriend - an actor, in passing, with improv training - asked me if I thought they might have asked to adlib that scene, and slipped in some revenge on the writer. (She would never do that, but I think Clive and Julia could get away with it if they wanted to.)
Suffice to say, it is: Just. That. Bad. The rom-com cliches undo the spy intrigue, and the spy story makes the rom-com-style exposition seem extraneous. Trying to hybridize these two genres is an ambitious experiment - something for everyone! Millions of dollars! - and all experiments are valuable for what we can learn from them... I mean, Casablanca was a pretty good spy/romance hybrid... but this film, on the other hand, only taught us a lot because of its colossal failure.