Review: The Double

Jackson Caines 12 April 2014

Four years after Submarine charmed its way into the hearts of misunderstood 14 year-olds everywhere, Richard Ayoade continues his transformation from TV comedian caterpillar to film director butterfly with The Double. Adapted from a Dostoyevsky novel, it tells the story of Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), an underachieving office worker who is humiliated on a daily basis by everyone around him. Colleagues he has known for years can’t recall his name; the waitress at his local café won’t get his order right; and the girl of his dreams, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), notices him only when their mutual neighbour kills himself.

The monotony of his life is suddenly punctured by the arrival of a new colleague – James Simon (also Eisenberg). He looks and sounds exactly like Simon James, but is adored by his boss and drooled over by women. Cue an existential crisis which sees the original Simon confront his obnoxious doppelganger and attempt to rescue his own identity from oblivion.

It’s an intriguing proposition, and Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine aren’t short of ideas when it comes to bringing Dostoyevsky’s vision of soulless bureaucracy to the screen. Disorientating green and yellow lights flicker ominously; workers type away at computer technology that seems to be stuck somewhere in the 1980s; TVs broadcast bizarre bursts of sci-fi kitsch. Ayoade makes great play of visual gags to heighten the sense of absurdity, from a lift that conspires against its user to the beckoning hands of a creepy bureaucrat, framed comically in profile.

When these quirky touches hit the mark they are a delight; when they miss, they feel try-hard. The dialogue, too, is never quite as funny as it thinks it is, too often reliant on the hurried, dead-pan delivery that Eisenberg made his trademark in The Social Network. Indeed, whether you really enjoy The Double or not will depend a lot on your reaction to Eisenberg’s performance – after all, there are two of them. He’s in his element as the cocky doppelganger, but as the sensitive pushover he’s not as sympathetic as he should be.

There’s a bigger problem with The Double, though, and it’s that Richard Ayoade is basically a cinephile’s filmmaker. In interviews he is an earnest student of his medium, enthusiastically listing the eclectic influences that inform his directing style, from Orson Welles to Jean-Pierre Melville. At a time when many filmmakers seem reluctant to stray beyond American comic books for their artistic inspiration, his old-fashioned admiration for classic and arthouse directors comes as a relief.

What his debut film suggested, and what The Double now confirms, however, is that Ayoade too readily wears these influences on his sleeve. With Submarine, it was the French nouvelle vague that was the order of the day – remember all those shots on the beach, or the freeze-frame on Jordana’s face, or the bold intertitles? Amusing for fans of Truffaut and Godard, sure, but hardly the signifier of a major new directing talent.

The reference points that comprise The Double are different (and less French): its dystopian aesthetic is a mash-up of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and 1984, with James Fox playing the Big Brother figure of The Colonel. Simon James’s corporate anonymity, meanwhile, recalls the opening voice-over of The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s classic 1960 rom-com: “Our home office has 31,259 employees… I work on the 19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861…” And when Simon spies on Hannah through a telescope, it’s pure Rear Window.

Somewhere in this cultural patchwork, Ayoade’s authorship gets obscured. It’s a shame, because The Double has a lot going for it, from Andrew Hewitt’s minimalist score to Adam Armitage’s inventive sound design. As a sum of its parts, though, it’s as unsure of its identity as its troubled protagonist.

6/10.

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