“Often, an actor comes with his own strange ideas, and the director takes them and shapes them into a normal movie scene. Richard takes actors’ strange inclinations… and pushes them farther.”–Jesse Eisenberg on Richard Ayoade
DIRECTED BY: Richard Ayoade
PLOT: Simon James is a competent but meek bureaucrat, nearly invisible to his co-workers and to Hannah, the copy room worker he loves from afar. One day, a man named James Simon comes to work at his place of employment—a man who looks exactly like him but has an opposite personality of confidence that verges on arrogance. At first Simon and James hit it off, but eventually James begins seizing Simon’s work and romantic opportunities, and Simon realizes that he must confront his double or lose everything he owns and disappear completely.
- The Double is loosely based on the 1846 short novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Only the writer’s second novel, the work was poorly received, and even the author himself admitted “I failed utterly.”
- Roman Polanski intended to film an adaptation of “The Double” in 1996, but plans fell through when star John Travolta backed out.
- Director Richard Ayoade is better known in Britain as a comic actor (he played Maurice Moss in “The I.T. Crowd”). The Double is his second feature film as a director.
- The script was co-written by Avi (brother of Harmony) Korine.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Double is a movie that builds by ideas, not images. This is not to diminish the hard work of the art department in constructing the claustrophobic cubicles, suicide-leap ledges and greasy lunch counters that make up Simon James’ drab world; it’s just that the visuals, like the industrial office audio soundscapes, are used as background rather than points of emphasis. This being a doppelganger movie, the most memorable imagery, naturally, involves Jesse Eisenberg interacting with Jesse Eisenberg. We selected the moment that Jesse Eisenberg 1, having just punched Jesse Eisenberg 2, stands over his fallen victim, realizing with surprise that he has spouted a spontaneous nosebleed just as he drew blood from his double.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a timeless industrial dystopia, The Double takes the alienation of Dostoevsky’s psychological novel and filters it through the social paranoia of Franz Kafka; all this Eastern European anomie is then sprinkled with the dry, absurd wit for which the British are justifiably famous. Naturally, this comic existential nightmare of a stolen life is scored to peppy Japanese versions of early Sixties pop songs. The Double is the most fun you’ll have laughing into the void since Brazil.
Original trailer for The Double
COMMENTS: 2014 will go down as the Year of the Doppelganger, with the release of The Double together with Enemy (alongside which it would make a great “Double Feature”), not to mention the Twilight Zone romantic comedy The One I Love, the brilliant (but unfortunately for us, not so weird) Coherence, and even +1, the teen sex variant on the doubling theme. The Double and Enemy were the weirdest and most notable of examples of the trend, and despite sharing an identical premise of a protagonist who finds himself faced with the sudden, inexplicable appearance of an exact duplicate of himself, the two movies are as different in personality as James Simon and Simon James. Denis Villeneuve‘s Enemy is dour and sickening, essentially a horror movie, while Richard Ayoade focuses instead on the comic absurdity of this impossible situation. Both films depend on superb performances from their central actor. Eisenberg plays meek Simon as a version of his own shy self, while his James is an amped-up variation on his Social Network take on Mark Zuckerbeg—the sexy, arrogant nerd. He differentiates the two by his bearing—Simon’s shoulders are perpetually slumped and his arms turned inward—and by his cadence—James’ words zip out of his mouth with the omniscient precision of a manipulative sociopath. Eisenberg’s portrayal is broader, as fits the comic material; we aren’t meant to get confused as to who is who in the dialectic of The Double, while the occasional ambiguity of identity is a calling card of Enemy, whose script is also cagier as to which personality is dominant. The Double stages its identity crisis in the external world: it is clearly a power struggle between primary personality Simon and the parasitic James, although the root cause of the battle is a source of bafflement.
Ayoade is one of the few artists who can claim to have improved on Dostoevsky, for, by recognizing the comic potential inherent in the appearance of an invasive doppelganger and exaggerating it to an absurd extent, he transforms and redeems the scenario the Russian writer considered brilliantly conceived but badly executed. There’s no big secret to what makes The Double‘s script work: the jokes. They land and they make us laugh, albeit uneasily because they retain Dostoevsky’s existential punch. The very first scene involves Simon sitting in a corner of a nearly deserted subway car. The only other person in the car, a man whose face we never see, approaches him and says “you’re in my place.” Eisenberg’s “you must be joking” reaction sets the uncomfortably humorous tone for the rest of the movie, which is based on the crazy notion that our exact double might someday appear, and no one would notice. A coworker has to be prodded repeatedly into acknowledging that the interloper bears a passing resemblance to the original (his explanation for not noticing the likeness is a casual “no offense, but you’re pretty unnoticable—a bit of a non-person”). As James, Eisenberg takes a turn as a Cyrano, coaching his shyer half in the art of seduction. He gets some pretty sweet, flipped-out monologues, including one where he explains which behaviors are gay and which aren’t (riding on a motorcycle behind another man, it turns out, is acceptable heterosexual behavior, as long as you lob a bomb in the process).
It’s the comedy that moves The Double away from Enemy, with which it shares a mere plot hook, and towards the movie it most nearly resembles: Terry Gilliam‘s Brazil. The Double shares a dystopian setting with Brazil; and, like Brazil, that dystopia is inexactly situated “somewhere in the twentieth century.” Clothing is nondescript and could be from any era: there are elevators and subways, telephones on cradles existing alongside primitive video games with advanced pistol controllers, and a strange photocopy system whereby the office workers place their documents in a Xerox, dial in the number of copies they wish to make, and then go to pick them up in another office. (The cubicle-farm offices are laced with enough Brazilian ductwork to remind us of Gilliam’s world without photocopying its look). The TV plays a science fiction soap opera with gaudy disco-age green-screen graphics scored to early 80s synth pop. Further, although bureaucracy is not quite the malignancy that it was in Brazil, Simon must deal with his fair share of procedural absurdity, including the fact that the security guard still makes him check in every morning despite his protests that he’s walked through the same door every day for seven years (impossible, the guard points out, because he doesn’t work weekends) and a Kafkaesque exit interview after Simon’s identity is lost in the company computer system. Although the wellspring of social alienation in The Double isn’t a tyrannical government trying to crush the individual, but rather the indifference of individuals to each other, Simon is as persecuted an outsider in his world as Brazil‘s Sam was in his.
If we view Simon and James as two sides of the same personality, we immediately notice that it’s the insecure, timid self that is considered the more real, while the brash, extroverted self is the impostor. The movie’s view of the human condition is that we are all alone, afraid and insecure at our cores, and our confident exteriors are just social facades, projections of how we wished we could be inside. Although Ayoade adopts an external society that feels more like Kafka, the film’s cringing psychology is pure Dostoevsky. Simon’s key experience is of loneliness, the failure to connect with other humans. Although he can be a pushover and even creepy when his courting of Hannah approaches stalkerish spying with a telescope, he wins us over with a couple of heartfelt monologues about his own alienation which he shares with his better half. His Pinocchio speech puts James to sleep, however, and his better half steals a poetic insubstantiality metaphor to use as a pickup line. The only way to deal with the painful reality of loneliness is with jokes. What can you do except laugh in a society so bleak that when you tell the suicide investigation squad that you don’t plan to kill yourself, their response is “put him down as a maybe?”
Ayoade succeeds where Dostoevsky did not because he treats the material as painful comedy. That’s his lone innovation, perhaps, but it’s enough to turn the story from a failure into a success. Truthfully, there’s not much in The Double that is original. We’ve already pointed out the numerous similarities to Brazil and suggested the film’s debt to Franz Kafka. The Double includes references to Five Easy Pieces and Rear Window, among other classic films; the press notes cite Jean-Luc Godard‘s Alphaville, The Trial, Federico Fellini‘s Toby Dammit, and Eraserhead (that last one is mostly evident in the sound design) as influences. Though it features a doppelganger, The Double is more in the tradition of dystopian cinema of alienation, especially the black comedy strain of that tradition. It’s not new, but within its seldom-assayed subgenre, it’s a superior effort. Superficially, it may look like other movies, but there aren’t too many like it. If you could ask it, I’m sure The Double would say it likes to think it’s pretty unique.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Like a lucid nightmare on the subway at odd hours, The Double leaves one feeling intellectually stimulated, creatively charged, and close to existential panic. The second feature directed by Richard Ayoade is a dark and surreal comedy-thriller that takes a dizzying jaunt through cinematic and literary allusion, parody and paranoia.”–Morgan Wilcock, Film Comment (contemporaneous)
“Brit director Richard Ayoade’s breathtakingly realized oddity will appeal to fans of David Lynch and the comic surrealism of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil.'”–Kyle Smith, The New York Post (contemporaneous)
OFFICIAL SITE: The Double (official movie site) – Magnolia’s site contains the trailer, film and featurette clips, a photo gallery, and a link to the press kit
IMDB LINK: The Double (2013)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Double – The film’s Facebook page for current news
Richard Ayoade & Jesse Eisenberg on “The Double”– 30 minute video of “Q”‘s Jian Ghomeshi interviewing the director and star of The Double
The Double Trailer | Festival 2013 – An alternate trailer for the film made for the 2013 Toronto Film Festival
The Double, by Fyodor Dostoevsky – A public domain translation of the original novel by Constance Garnett, courtesy of the University of Adelaide
DVD INFO: Magnolia Home Entertainment’s DVD (buy) includes a series of short (under five minutes) featurettes covering the cast and crew, production design, unnarrated behind-the-scenes footage, and an interview with director co-writer Richard Ayoade (witty and urbane, Ayoade is a revelation to US audiences). They are fine, but each segment repeats some of the same introductory content, and frankly with a little work they could have been assembled into a nice longer documentary rather than spread out to make the disc appear more feature-packed than it is.
The Blu-ray (buy) contains the same features and at the time of this writing could be had for the same or a lesser price as the DVD.
Naturally, The Double is available as a video-on-demand download as well (buy).