[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. The Double opens today in limited release and is available on VOD]
Director Richard Ayoade delivered a visually distinct, memorable, and funny film with 2010’s Submarine. With his follow-up, The Double, he has made his imagery even more distinct and eye-catching by building a new world from scratch; showcasing Erik Wilson’s gorgeous cinematography; and creating a remarkable and unusual blending of absurd comedy with psychological thriller. Furthermore, star Jesse Eisenberg takes his two familiar character types, and fits them both into the unique setting Ayoade has conjured. The result is a movie that can be overly forthright with its themes, but is still utterly captivating.
Simon James (Eisenberg) works as an office drone in an unusual company doing unspecified, unrewarding tasks for CEO and deific figure “The Colonel” (James Fox). From the very beginning, the entire world is against the timid Simon. He’s treated like a stranger at the place where he’s worked for seven years, his crush Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) barely notices him, and his mother (Phyllis Somerville) treats him like garbage. Simon’s life becomes even more difficult when James Simon (also Eisenberg), a man that looks identical but has the opposite personality, comes into the picture.
The style of The Double and the feel of Simon’s office will likely recall Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. It’s a soulless bureaucracy with a unique decor that recalls outdated machines retrofitted onto other outdated machines. The movie doesn’t take place in our reality, so Ayoade has the freedom to craft a distinct and intriguing place that slowly runs Simon down. Technology is constrained to what can further suck the life out of a person, and the job is as murky as the setting. Ayoade excels at taking an abstract frustration and turning it into a surreal environment.
Wilson’s cinematography provides further definition to the world through, counter-intuitively, obfuscation. Reflective surfaces occasionally haunt Simon, almost every room is cloaked in shadow, and if there is a brightly lit location, it’s a harsh light designed to illuminate Simon’s latest humiliation. Everything is oppressive to Simon, but not to us. We’re so busy falling into this odd world that we’re fascinated rather than upset. We’re also too busy laughing at Simon’s darkly comic misfortunes.
The film smashes together Eisenberg’s two most famous personas: the uptight, timid Eisenberg as seen in Zombieland and voiced in Rio, and the super-confident, condescending Eisenberg we know from The Social Network and Now You See Me. To brush off these performances as “We’ve seen it before,” would be missing the excellent chance to see the actor play off himself, which is particularly impressive when you consider the superb comic timing. He’s playing two kinds of comedy in one unique film, and the approach works wonderfully.
In addition to the smart casting of Eisenberg, Ayoade has taken Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name, and brilliantly weaved in visual and aural motifs as well as telling dialogue to address the central conflict of a man forced to confront his own weakness by dealing with his doppelganger. For example, early in the film, Simon tells someone, “You’re in my place,” and later there’s a commercial for Simon’s company where The Colonel tells the viewer, “There’s no such thing as people. Just People.” Simon is in the commercial, but when he watches it with his mother, she doesn’t see him in it. When he tries to talk to Hannah, his stuttering, halting speech is buried with the off-screen sound of a passing subway train. Simon is a man who’s barely there, and James, with his abundance of confidence and dearth of morals, has come to take what little remains.
The fear of a usurper is nothing new, and it fits well into both a thriller where a life is being stolen, and to a comedy where a life is being mocked. The concept is well-worn territory on both sides, but The Double impressively brings both tones together. Dostoevsky’s novella was published in 1846, and its ideas have been mined and adapted for decades, so it’s difficult to bring anything new to the table. Thematically, Ayoade is stuck, and if there’s a downside to his approach, it’s that everything is on the surface. However, it’s tough to criticize the surface when it’s completely enchanting. The Double is a dizzying, beguiling work of cinema, and while you may think you’ve seen the story before, Richard Ayoade provides a compelling reason to look again.