The Double – Richard Ayoade and the Dostoevsky Dystopia. (Film Review)
So here we arrive at Richard Ayoade’s second feature film, The Double, a take on the much admired novella by Dostoyevsky. The Double remains fairly close to the original writers narrative plot. For many reasons this is film belongs to Jesse Eisenberg and art director David Crank with Eisenberg coming off as more complex than his usual portrayals and Crank’s rather retro dystopia enhanced by Erik Wilson’s cinematic eye carefully taking everything in with additions of colour burst that work well in adding a surrealist element to something that is very Russian existential / grotesque.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a nobody no one remembers living in an existential world that somehow harkens back to a cross between a disheveled 1950’s and an early tech 1980’s in its rather beautiful imagery. Simon James is a person we are told, even though no one recognises him, no one speaks to him unless it is to reprimand him for something he didn’t do, and everyone from his boss to the waitress steals his power at every opportunity. Simon’s nothingness is summed up beautifully with a complex relationship with the work elevator that seems to, not only refuse to operate properly when he is inside, but tease and irritate him intentionally. Then one day, a model employee turns up, a man named James Simon, who is described as surviving the local round of lay offs at another branch when “even the cockroaches couldn’t survive.” James, also played by Jesse Eisenberg, looks exactly the same as Simon, only he is able to take charge of his life and where Simon loses his power to everyone, James takes the power of everyone around him. The great joke of the film is that Simon and James seem to be the only one’s who notice that they look the same, and even though they are able to continually swap places without detection, people still can’t notice a resemblance when they’re standing together. Initially the unlikely pair form a friendship, but as Simon discovers James is starting to take over his life – or rather the life he wished he had – the dark dystopia becomes a kind of hellish netherworld as Simon has to run around trying to prove to everyone that he really does exist.
It’s a great story, but its Dostoyevsky’s, and that seems to be part of the problem for Ayoade here as in his first feature Submarine. Submarine was a collection of homage shots from The French New Wave, with a dash of Wes Anderson (a director he clearly loves, because The double contains elements of him again) but it lacked substance or something, and the same problem occurs with The Double. These are beautifully made films with an eye for detail but The Double suffers from such severe over direction that all the cleverness gets washed up in an ocean of homage shots that forget they have to contribute to plotting, not just show us how clever the director is. I know that sounds unkind, and I apologise for that (just as I strangely did in my review of Submarine) but one gets a strong sense of a self-consciousness in Ayoade that he is trying to eliminate by the unlikely pairing of creative brilliance and direct unashamed technique that moves past homage into flat-out copying. Some of this is subtle, such as the Hitchcock Rear Window homage, and some of it seems to border on plagiarism, such as the office scenes being almost directly lifted from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. In this way the film can’t make up its mind on a visual style and stick with it, the stylised world of the art direction completely at odds with the gun-metal gray and neon of outdoors, subways, graveyards and in the end Ayoade becomes a kind of parody of his own film, with the self-conscious Ayoade proving himself to himself by mimicking the greats and the inflated ego Ayoade brushing over depth, pacing and consistency in order to breathlessly display his brilliance. In this way The Double is Ayoade’s story, not Simon’s, nor Eisenberg’s, with the perceptive Dostoevsky existentialism forging a transparency that was never intended.
What makes the film a fascinating piece of entertainment, is the attention to detail, the very attention that subconscious Ayoade assumes will direct our eye, but in fact acts as the transparent mask that at once reveals itself and what is underneath. The film looks gorgeous, at least the interiors do, and as with Submarine, there is pleasure in the game of spot the reference that Ayoade likes to play with his audiences. When its funny it’s quite funny, many of the great lines being repeated by the great Wallace Shawn as Mr Papadopoulos. Mia Wasikowska shines in her beautiful girl next door moments, but fails to convince when she has an eyebrow lowered darkness to her, and she’s an actress I like a lot. She was so foreboding in Stoker, but Ayoade doesn’t seem to know what to do with her when the film moves towards surrealism, so he leaves her dangling in a halfway space between indie darling and cocky bitch. When the time comes for her to deliver her shocking line, toward the end of the film, it comes out of nowhere, and seems shamelessly cruel, rather than a reflexive occurence more relating to James’ psyche. Noah Taylor also, who worked so well in Submarine, seems very out of place here as the sometimes friend of James, Harris, who is never actually there when the chips are down. Taylor is one of the few actors whose presence I always respond to in any film he’s in, but here he is underutilized to the effect of leaving the impression he’s the poster boy for an Ayoade film – you know its Ayoade because Noah Taylor will have a main role or a cameo. interestingly Taylors role in Submarine was similar to the powerless Eisenberg of The Double, providing another one of those unintentional insights that appear even as Ayoade seems so determined to hide them.
The Double is not a full night at the cinema by any means, and it is an engaging watch, just keep the expectations in moderation, and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.