The Double (2014)

dir. Richard Ayoade

The Double is Richard Ayoade’s second film and already he has proven himself a unique talent with impressive control over tone and composition. Both The Double and his first feature, Submarine, waste no time in confidently establishing and dropping the viewer into a fully realized universe. In Submarine he displayed a keen understanding of the power of color and editing and even managed to use narration to great effect. It was impressive how he was able to sustain the youthful, breathless energy through its entire run time and reach a satisfying conclusion. So it is a bit of a let down when The Double fails to sustain the energy of its first act and leaves many intriguing strings dangling in its unsatisfying conclusion.

That is not to say there aren’t many reasons to see The Double - especially in a theater, with good sound. If Ayoade proved his visual acumen with Submarine, it is with The Double that he shows his aptitude for the power of sound in a film. His playfulness remains sharp here and I truly doubt Ayoade will ever make a dull film. The sound design in The Double is a marvel of editing and attention to how to make the most out of every scene. Certain sounds fade away, others rise, and footsteps - one of the more innocuous of movie sounds, take on sinister implications. It makes me wonder if the script, based on a Dostoyevsky novella, by Ayoade and Avi Korine (her brother Harmony Korine helped produce), didn’t receive the same level of attention.

In this case we are deep into existential paranoia territory. In a fine, understated performance (there really isn’t a poor one in the film), Jesse Eisenberg plays a down-trodden office drone of the Sam Lowry variety. In fact, much of the film, especially the retro-futuristic art design, full of tubes and knobby contraptions, is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and unfortunately ends up being a bit of a detriment. Eisenberg’s Simon James is a meek, fidgety thing who nearly disappears in his oversized grey suit and can’t work up the nerve to be anything but a productive worker. Sadly, he’s so much of a non-presence that his boss (Wallace Shawn) can’t even recognize or acknowledge his dedication. So he spends the rest of his time longing for co-worker Hannah, played by Mia Wasikowska - who seems intent on being unavoidable in 2014.

Suddenly there appears a new employee at the office and to Simon’s shock, and no one else's, he is Simon’s exact double. His name is James Simon and Eisenberg plays him full of smarmy smirks and, of course, confident assurance. While Simon can barely display these slight smiles at the corner of his lips when observing Hannah, James is comfortable saying something like, "I'd tear out an elephant's ass if I had a shot at a piece of trim like that." The film dips briefly into a Cyrano situation, with James offering tips to help Simon woo Hannah - but it isn’t long before James is overtly undermining Simon until there is essentially nothing left of him to call his own.

There is something missing from this story and perhaps it’s just an entirely different second act than the one we’re given. One that makes the third act, which is full of Simon’s despair until he reaches his breaking point, more affecting. As good as Eisenberg is, the film doesn’t make much of a case for Simon. He clearly wants to be someone and the crux of the story is how he ends up doing that - but who is this person trying to emerge? He says he’d like to think of himself as a unique individual but we never see much to back that up. Brazil’s Sam Lowry had an impressive imagination at the very least. Simon likes a sci-fi television show, which isn’t at all unique since it seems to be the only thing they show on television in this world.

While I didn’t connect with some of the emotional resonance of the film and felt frustrated that certain aspects, like the appearance of other doubles later on in the film, were left discarded or unexplored, I still enjoyed myself with the abundance of dark humor the film has to offer. It’s a joy watching Richard Ayoade at work and it is clear that he is a filmmaker that will continue to push his craft. The scene’s between Simon and James are impressive, and consistently hilarious, on their own but the film has many unexpected technical flourishes to admire. I’m hoping his next film will have a satisfying story that is an equal to his audio/visual talents.