It’s often said that imitation is the finest form of flattery, yet why are we the people so often inclined to jump onto something for being a “cheap rip-off” if it bares a strong resemblance to another thing that may have preceded it. An artist (hell, a human being) is incapable of not being influenced from history both personal and societal, and while I don’t often like to think that every idea, concept or aesthetic has been explored in some medium or another, the thing is that deep down in my psyche there’s a prevalent fear that I know that they have. When it comes to cinema, I am always first to call off a film for being overly derivative, but on the other hand I also do find there to be great cause to be excited when a movie comes along that is blatantly borrowing from a previous film for it’s tone, style, and decor, yet comes off as rather unique in it’s ability to adhere (whether intentionally or otherwise). The Double is just that type of film, and it’s most applaudable aspect is that it recalls a certain type of commercial art house cinema that hasn’t really been seen in America for perhaps decades.
Loosely based off of a short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the film is set in what appears to be an alternative reality to our own, where industrialization seems to have reached an overbearing level on civilization. Streets our dank, murky, and rarely lit by anything other than artificial light, and people tend to be blank states, relegated as cogs of the system by a seemingly omniscient business overlord called The Colonel (James Fox). Rather than primarily concentrating on this world, however, the film is almost entirely told through the eyes of it’s protagonist Simon James (Jessie Eisenberg), a shy and troubled young man, who work an unspecified position at an unspecified company. Things drastically change for Simon, however, when a new employee comes to work at his office named James Simon, and yep, he looks exactly like him (although apparently only to his vision). When Simon makes contact with James, we discover they really are polar opposites, with James being fully confident, and always brash and successful at whatever he sets out on. It becomes evident that James also wants something from Simon, and it may be even a bit more than just his face.
As soon as I saw the trailer for The Double, there was one film I immediately likened to in regards of it’s look: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Like that 1985 sci-fi masterpiece, The Double presents to viewers a world that is very retro on it’s surface, and vaguely futuristic in it’s veneer, yet it’s social commentary carries a more timeless quality. While the unnamed city of the film may seems to be aesthetically stuck in the 1950s (thanks to brilliant production design from Joseph Crank), it’s also ostensible that the film is trying to make a comment on the information age. We see the droll people of this world be subjected to the technology, from watching televisions that primarily broadcast info-mercials and campy sci-fi serials (not unlike the work of Tim and Eric), to taking work-related tests that are repetitive and nonsensical. Our protagonist Simon consistently finds people forget who he is or what he looks like, whether they be co-workers or even his own mother, and it’s not hard to see why given the dronish nature of the society that surrounds him. It’s ostensibly a film about identity, that is asking viewers whether it’s possible for someone to exist as a human in this day and age, rather than as a number in a system that caters nothing to our physical being.
Also like Brazil, the film is humorous yet also carries an ominous cloud with it, and it acts as the proverbial crying clown in a way that’s self-aware, yet not self-indulgent. Director/writer Richard Ayoade may be best known by American audiences for his role in British sit-com The IT Crowd, but he’s proved he’s an enlightened director through his music video work, and the Ben Stiller-produced film Submarine. In The Double, however, Ayoade shows his literary influences, and while he may have chosen a Dostoyevsky novella as a jumping off point, his tendencies actually may run more parallel to another boundary-pushing author. Kafka-esque is a term that some people will drop whenever they see something surreal, but The Double’s themes of existential chaos and personal transformation do recall the stories of Franz Kafka, and Ayoade’s shoots the film as such. Ayoade often using swirling technique for his shot decisions, often make us viewers double-check ourselves over whether we’re watching Simon or James on screen. Granted, it can be difficult at times to determine if the film’s more puzzling scenes are intentionally ambiguous or unintentionally confusing, but as a whole the film just feels so clever, and the plot flows exceedingly well. The film has several reoccurring plot points that go with it’s theme on duality, climaxing in a final act that’s both unexpected, yet fully earned plot-point wise, and it’s reassuring to know that this dark little film does end on a note that’s rather life-affirming.
Of course, this review would not be complete without commenting on Jessie Eisenberg’s dual performance as Simon James and James Simon. The 30-year old actor has received acclaim for his range, as he’s played both affable nerds and pretentious intellectuals in his filmography, and in The Double he plays both. Eisenberg plays against himself very well though, and keeps viewers so engrossed in his performance that it’s not even worth pondering the technical craft that went into constructing such a convincing role. Aside from that, the film’s other star, Mia Wasikowska who plays Simon’s love interest, gives another impressive performance here after a string of high-profile roles. The Australian actress initially comes off as charming and endearing, yet for the film’s darker second half she convincingly pulls off the role of a depressed and broken soul, yet doesn’t succumb to giving us an overwhelming degree of melancholy like….well, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. Also, on a side note, indie rock fans are really going to love a particular cameo in the film, and his presence actually fits perfectly with the film thematically.
In an apropos coincidence, The Double premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival alongside two other films about doppelgängers, the already released (and reviewed) Enemy, and the upcoming The Face of Love. The film therefore has the misfortune of coming out in a year when people are less likely to find it original conceptually, if perhaps moreso stylistically (unless you recently watched Brazil). Still, I don’t think this should detract people from realizing that the movie is heady, surreal, terrifying, and entertaining all in it’s own way. Like the film’s two body-doubles, The Double is an intriguing parallel, that’s equally abrasive yet sincere, and ultimately a construct, but a more organic one than most.