Dark Comedy Drama

The Duality of a Film Review: The Double

June 13, 2014Ben MK

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Twin cinema

By Ben Mk

In Hollywood, twins are bad news. No, that isn't meant as a knock against Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (or Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, for that matter) — it's a reference to films like Dead Ringers and Enemy, which have shown us that anytime exact human facsimiles are involved, trouble ensues and bloodshed follows. Of course, this notion extends even further back, to Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1846 novella, The Double. And it's in that tale that the second film from director Richard Ayoade finds its basis, taking a tale of an existential identity crisis and crafting a dark comedy out of it.

Jesse Eisenberg is no stranger to dealing with twins, having clashed with the Winklevosses in The Social Network. But in The Double, he's the one playing the dual role, as both Simon James and James Simon, two men who couldn't be more dissimilar from one another, if not for the fact that they share the same face.

Between the two of them, Simon consistently draws the proverbial short straw. To hear his co-worker, Harris (Noah Taylor), tell it, he's "a bit of a non-person" — timid, utterly forgettable and a complete pushover. Though Simon's been thanklessly slaving away at his job for the past seven years — crunching numbers for a big boss named "The Colonel", whom only a few earn the privilege of meeting — not a single soul at his humdrum office (not even the security guard who watches him come and go day in and day out) can attest to his existence. His manager, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), who habitually refers to him as "Stanley", couldn't even pick him out of a police line-up if his life depended on it. So it should come as no surprise to hear that Simon's also excruciatingly lonely; and that he fills much of his free time pining for Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), his work colleague who, as it turns out, is equally glum. But as is the norm for him, he's unable to draw her attention, so he settles for gazing at her through the telescope he has fixated on her apartment window.

Enter James, Simon's mysterious doppelgänger and his polar opposite — self-assured, cocky and manipulative. Late one night, after a thwarted attempt at presenting Hannah with a gift, Simon catches a fleeting glimpse of him amid the darkness, and the next day Simon's literally floored when Mr. Papadopoulos introduces James as the office's newest employee. Within no time, James has the rest of the office eating out of the palm of his hand — and it's not long before James and Simon are conspiring with one another to reap the mutual advantages of their likeness, with Simon taking James' employment aptitude test on his behalf while James tries to help Simon woo Hannah. Things seem to go smoothly enough — that is, until Simon learns that his plan has backfired and Hannah has fallen for James. Soon, he's gripped by the realization that James has been subverting his life, and the only way for him to take it back may be through extreme measures.

After his critically-acclaimed debut film, Submarine, Ayoade (best known for his role on BBC's The IT Crowd) shifts into full Terry Gilliam mode for his sophomore directorial effort (which he also co-scripted). Shooting the film as one would stage a play — with the actors front and center at all times — he experiments with moody lighting, shadows and a monochromatic palette for dramatic effect, but the story is really a darkly funny, razor-sharp satire, set against the grim and grimy dystopia of an alternate reality 1980's. Its bizarrely satisfying marriage of office politicking and the Orwellian overtones of 1984 is surreal to say the least, and it's only heightened by the film's retro-analog/neo-noir production design (where desk-sized computers and office cubicles resembling dilapidated train cabins are the norm) and off-and-on synth soundtrack (courtesy of Simon's favorite TV show, an appropriately-titled sci-fi schlock-fest called The Replicator).

The film's cast includes some very recognizable faces — including Hollywood legends like James Fox (as The Colonel) and Cathy Moriarty (as a surly waitress), as well as brief appearances from Ayoade's previous collaborators, namely The IT Crowd's Chris O'Dowd and Submarine's Sally Hawkins, Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige and Paddy Considine — but it's really Eisenberg and Wasikowska who steal the show.

Eisenberg is uniformly excellent as both the downtrodden Simon and the reptilian James, with a performance that's equal parts pathos and ego, echoing various characteristics of his past acting roles. Yet, he doesn't rely on broad strokes to communicate the differences between his two personas. Instead, it's ingeniously subtle, as visually distinguishing between his two roles often boils down to picking up on nuances like the arch of an eyebrow or the angle of tilt of the jawline. Whereas Eisenberg spends the film being foiled by himself, he finds a complimentary player in Wasikowska, who radiates mystery as Simon's muse. Wasikowska has certainly come a long way in the short period of time since her film debut in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, and here her character is more than just a pretty face for Eisenberg's struggling character to pin his desires on. She's responsible for drawing Simon out of his shell, even though she's tormented by her own emotional insecurities, and Wasikowska plays her with a keen eye for the intricacies of human nature.

The Bottom Line

The Double may not be the first attempt at bringing Dostoevsky's classic tale to the big screen, but it's far from being a clone of what's come before. Ayoade's film distinguishes itself as a strikingly unique cinematic vision — one that dances all over that fine line between comedy and tragedy — and its vivid imagery and memorable performances are what will sear it into your brain, guaranteeing that it won't soon be forgotten. In fact, it's so nice, you might even want to see it twice. [★★★★]

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