Surely it goes without saying by now that Richard Ayoade is one talented gent. I loved his feature directing debut SUBMARINE, and THE DOUBLE takes everything that worked in that film and amps it up, refines it, and takes it to a much weirder and far more twisted place. I can’t pretend I understood everything that happens (or doesn’t) especially towards the end of the film, but I don’t really think Ayoade intended it all, or perhaps much of it at all, to be easily pinned down, so that’s probably the point.
In a nondescript time and place, Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), an unremarkable office drone, is used to being unappreciated or flat-out ignored by his colleagues and most painfully, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the woman he secretly harbors feelings for. His life is monotonous, but he just accepts it as the way the world is, the way anyone like him would be treated, until his doppelganger James (also Eisenberg) arrives on the scene and quickly becomes the most popular guy in the office. Hannah falls for James and he is proclaimed the company’s brightest hope for the future by the boss, Mr Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), despite being exactly the same person as Simon, only with charisma. As James worms his way ever further into Simon’s life, events take a far more sinister turn…
Some films are so visually beautiful I get chills. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that The Double is by far the best-looking film of 2013, and no, I haven’t forgotten about GRAVITY. Every shot is painstakingly constructed and unavoidably eye-catching. The whole film has this sickly yellow-green filter over it and impenetrable, almost German Expressionist shadows, all of which reflect the story’s main themes of alienation and paranoia brilliantly. Then the camera ethereally floats along long corridors like it’s tentatively navigating some vivid nightmare, and the film itself certainly becomes that as Simon’s real-or-not torment escalates.
Jesse Eisenberg gives a career-best performance twice. The subtle differences he brings to the characters of Simon and James, the way they act, talk, move, hold themselves has clearly been given much thought. Also, to provoke such a different reaction from the viewer to two characters with the same face is a remarkable achievement. We always feel sorry for Simon, we want him to be loved and find just a little happiness, even if he is a bit pathetic and stalker-y, and we quickly grow to detest James for being a despicable human being, despite his bottomless pit of charm. Mia Wasikowska makes her mark too with an affectingly fragile turn. She is far from just a token love interest, and she hints at her underlying personality and mental health issues without ever boiling Hannah’s characterisation down to a simple diagnosis. Ever since she paid her Hollywood dues with Tim Burton’s staggeringly miscalculated ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Wasikowska has been allowed to prove herself to be an extremely versatile young performer with the wide range of brave roles she has taken on.
The film isn’t set in a particular time or place, and most of the traditional building blocks of storytelling are deliberately unclear (for instance, it’s used as a gag that we don’t ever find out what Simon’s company actually does). Whatever his job entails, his office environment is part BRAZIL, part THE IT CROWD (certainly a unique combination). Ayoade stole the show in pretty much every scene in The IT Crowd playing super-nerd Moss, but the parallels between his film and Graham Linehan’s TV show, whether intentional or not, are hugely noticeable, from the amusing exaggeration of incomprehensible and pointless office life to satirical company training/marketing ads even to a sudden hilarious cameo by Chris Morris. It’s also nice that Ayoade managed to find a part for pretty much all of the key cast of Submarine, from interesting supporting roles for Yasmin Paige and Noah Taylor as the boss’s deviant daughter and a moody colleague, to amusing cameos from Craig Roberts and Paddy Considine as a baby-faced cop and a campy TV sci-fi character, respectively.
Some filmmakers put their personalities straight up on screen, and Richard Ayoade doesn’t seem the least bit embarrassed to bare his soul to the world, eccentricities and all, through his work. Like Submarine, it’s a filmmaking style that speaks to the alienated, to those who see the world in a different way, and in turn are seen as different by the world. The Double has a lot going for it, from great performances to thematic richness and multiple ways to read the increasingly deranged plot and even horror elements that hark back to Germanic folklore, but the very best thing it does is to evoke a feeling of intense uneasiness leading into an exploration of outright madness. Submarine went from pleasant Welsh whimsy to bittersweet life affirmation, but The Double just goes from dark to darker. It’s funny in an underplayed kind of way, but by God it’s black stuff. SSP