Review: The Double (2014)

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Director: Richard Ayoade
Screenwriter: Richard Ayoade & Avi Korine
Based on The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, Phyllis Somerville, Sally Hawkins, Chris O’Dowd and, erm, Jesse Eisenberg again…
Runtime: 93 min // Certificate: 15

Following on from his 2010 film Submarine, a passable debut but one that was full of promise for the future, Richard Ayoade makes his sophomore foray into narrative cinema with his unique take on an existentialist novella by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky… well, at least the man likes a challenge! Set in a bleak, industrial dystopia that isn’t too dissimilar to the present-day Western World, Ayoade’s film offers a comedic but unsettling exploration of a man who suffers a mental breakdown when none of his colleagues care, or even seem to notice, that his doppelganger has started working in the same office as them.

Ayoade’s film is a difficult beast for a number of reasons, though these are all part of its overall appeal. For starters, the audience is expected to just accept the central concept without question. In a sense it all plays out like a realistic form of surrealism; Ayoade ponders exactly would happen if such a situation arose as the one that does here, allowing him to ignore the minor plot details so he can focus on the grander philosophical ideas instead. The question at the film’s core is “what makes you, you?”, which is one that opens up all sorts of opportunities for experimentation and, more crucially, comedy. The two main characters – Simon and James (both played by Jesse Eisenberg) – are identical in appearance yet polar opposites in every other respect. Simon is meek, nervous and downtrodden while James is confident, ruthless and well respected. Simon is terrified to act on his feelings for his colleague Hannah (Wasikowska) whereas James has no problem wooing her – or any other woman – though the main difference between the two is that James is perfectly happy to ruin Simon’s life in order to get ahead.

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It is in this conflict of both character and ideas that the film flourishes and flounders simultaneously. The systematic collapse of Simon’s life is handled with real wit, verve and creativity by Ayoade, and though he doesn’t ram the philosophical or existentialist implications of what is occurring down the audience’s throat, the personal focus on Simon allows us to think about them for ourselves. You can approach the film in numerous ways – none of which supersede other approaches or interpretations – yet this becomes a bit of an issue as the film begins enters its final act, where a satisfactory conclusion isn’t really forthcoming. As the credits began to roll, my initial reaction was one of indifference; not to the film itself but to what it all meant. When push came to shove, I didn’t feel like there was enough meat on the bones so to speak and, as such, it felt a wee bit empty.

On a similar note, I’ve seen a number of critics compare The Double with the works of people like David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam. Personally, I don’t think these comparisons are remotely justified. You see, Ayoade’s major problem is that he still experiments with technique and form like a film student, which can sometimes be terribly off-putting, though in fairness to him he does it with all the panache of an A-grader who, if he continues to make films like this, might one day form a style all of his own (after all, “Ayoadean” has a certain ring to it don’t cha think?) Nonetheless, Ayoade’s attempts to be as “out there” as he possibly can don’t always work. Nevertheless, I do have to give him props for experimenting with the material in such a manner that the film – even in its less successful moments – feels unfailingly contemporary.

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Perhaps what’s most impressive about Ayoade’s film – above all else – is that it never once falls to pieces, despite teetering on the edge of a calamitous collapse right up to its final shot. Its success rests primarily on the shoulders of Jesse Eisenberg, who is little short of a revelation in the dual roles of James and Simon. I’ve never really rated Eisenberg much – to me, his performances have always been a bit one-note – but he’s on excellent form here, demonstrating a decent knack for both comedy and drama. Aided by a brilliantly zany turn from Mia Wasikowska, he carries the film through its numerous rough patches while managing to keep the audience engaged in his dilemma, despite the fact that neither Simon nor James are all that likable.

Ultimately, The Double is an imperfect but infectiously enjoyable film in which Ayoade indulges in experimentation like an over-excited child, yet somehow pulls it off. It’s the perfect length for what it is, it contains two (or should that be three?) great central performances – which are further boosted by some hilarious cameos from people like Sally Hawkins and Chris O’Dowd – and it’s full of humour that isn’t just dark but also very dry, which just serves to make it all the more amusing. I don’t think it always works but when it does it’s a wonderful little film that messes with conventions, tells a simple but intriguing story and showcases exactly why Ayoade has the potential to develop into one of the great British directors of the decade. Not quite a triumph, but not all that far from it either, The Double is well worth a watch.

★★★½

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