1984, based on a book, British films, bureaucracy, Cathy Moriarty, cinema, confusing, dark comedies, dark films, doppelgängers, doubles, dramas, film reviews, films, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, insanity, J. Mascis, James Fox, James Simon, Jesse Eisenberg, literary adaptation, loss of identity, Mia Wasikowska, Movies, Noah Taylor, office romances, Richard Ayoade, Simon James, Submarine, suicide, surrealism, The Double, UK films, Wallace Shawn, writer-director, Yasmin Paige
For better or worse, we appear to have experienced a bit of a renaissance in doppelgänger/double films over the past decade: The Prestige (2006), Timecrimes (2007), Moon (2009), Black Swan (2010), Another Earth (2011), The Face of Love (2013), +1 (2013), Enemy (2013), and The One I Love (2014) have all dealt with the rather nightmarish experience of coming face to face with yourself and the resultant difficulties that inevitably result from such meetings. While the above films are all (for the most part) as different from each other as possible, they all share the paranoid idea that, somewhere out there, there’s an exact duplicate of you just waiting to step into your shoes and take over your life. To this group, be sure to add writer-director-actor Richard Ayoade’s newest film, The Double (2014), a blackly comic adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s same-named novel that came out a mere two months after another similarly plotted film, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2014)…talk about doubling your pleasure, eh?
What’s fueling this sudden interest in doubles? While plenty of folks have their own ideas, I think it has a lot to do with our society’s uncontrollable need to be “the best possible _____” we can be. In an age where fame is only a YouTube video away and social media contacts are worth more than any over-stuffed Rolodex, many folks must be coming to the conclusion that their “allotted” measure of fame has somehow been held-up, way-laid by some unknown force. If everybody is getting famous and you aren’t, there has to be a good reason: perhaps, just perhaps, you’re not getting what’s coming to you because another version of you is. Maybe you aren’t the next singing sensation because your doppelgänger already got a contract. Perhaps there’s another version of you that’s more successful with the opposite sex, wealthier, more powerful, etc…The whole concept of doppelgängers provides a handy “out” for those folks who just can’t seem to secure a foothold on the ladder of success: it’s not my fault…the “other” me got there first!
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Simon James, the neebishy, milquetoast and nearly non-existent office worker who toils his days away in an oddly anonymous company run by the eccentric fellow know only as The Colonel (James Fox). Living a life of quiet, tedious desperation, Simon has worked at the company for seven years, yet still has trouble being recognized by the overly officious front-desk guard (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) or even his own supervisor, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn). Simon also pines, in silence, for his lovely, yet equally odd, co-worker, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), although she doesn’t seem to exist, either. This doesn’t stop Simon from peering at her apartment through his telescope, however, but it does (probably) preclude him from ever asking her out. Not to put to fine a point on it but Simon’s life is pretty damn shitty.
Things take a turn for the bizarre one night, however, when Simon chances to see someone jumping from an apartment across the way: the figure seems to smile and wave at Simon before leaping, which the poor guy finds suitably distressing. Imagine his further distress, then, when he seems to spy an exact double of himself through another apartment window. Faster than you can say “double your pleasure,” Simon’s company has just hired a dynamic new employee, someone who looks awful familiar: James Simon. As is par for the course with most doppelgänger films, James is pretty much the exact opposite of Simon: he’s outgoing, boisterous, popular, suave, aggressive and sly, all things that poor Simon has no experience with whatsoever. At first, James offers to help Simon woo Hannah, in exchange for posing as him and taking some aptitude tests. In short order, however, James has insinuated himself into every aspect of Simon’s life, stealing the credit for his work, blaming his foibles (such as seducing Mr. Popadopoulos’ daughter) on Simon and getting extremely friendly with Hannah.
As James appears to take over more and more of Simon’s life, the other man finds himself losing what little identity he appeared to have. A co-worker calls Simon a “non-entity” and the loss of his pass-card puts him in a completely untenable situation: he doesn’t exist, since he’s not in the system, but can’t get into the system unless he has a card, which he can’t get unless he’s in the system…a classic Catch-22 if ever there was one. Just when Simon’s situation seems as hopeless as it could possibly get, he hatches a desperate plan to get James out of his life forever. Will Simon be able to reclaim his identity? Is James as real as Simon? Can two objects occupy the same space, at the same time? If not, who will be left standing when the dust clears: meek Simon or assertive James? But most importantly: just what the hell is actually going on here in the first place?
Ayoade’s adaptation of The Double has quite a bit going for, not least of which is the film’s intriguing look, a visual style which splits the difference between the lo-tech dystopia of films like 1984 (1984), Brazil (1985) and Barton Fink (1991) and something like the noirish Gothica of Proyas’ Dark City (1998). None of the machines in the film, office or otherwise, look quite “right” and it’s impossible to assign any sort of time-period to the film: it might take place in 1950, 2050 or 12050, for all we know. Despite looking great, David Crank’s production design does have one unforeseen side-effect: rather than feeling like Dostoevsky, The Double often feels more in line with one of Kafka’s paranoid nightmares. While other critics have pointed this out as one of the film’s most damning flaws, I must politely disagree: as far as your humble host is concerned, the film’s production aspects are the most impressive thing about it…dig below the surface, however, and things get a bit dicier.
For one thing, the acting in the film tends to be rather hit-or-miss. Eisenberg is quite believable as the neebishy Simon but somewhat less so as the charismatic James. While playing opposite yourself is never the easiest acting gig, I’m instantly reminded of Mark Duplass’ much more interesting, dichotomous performance in the far-superior The One I Love: in that film, Duplass was able to portray both halves of himself as completely different, if inherently connected, individuals…they walked differently, talked differently…even smiled differently. Here, the differences between Simon and James are not only less consistent (James is never quite as assholey as he should be) but far less interesting. While I’ve never been the world’s biggest Eisenberg fan, I fully realize that he’s capable of much more than he does here.
The actor who really gets the short-end of the stick, however, is Wasikowska. So fascinating and vibrant in films like Albert Nobbs (2011), Stoker (2013) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), Wasikowska is completely wasted here: made into more of a non-entity than even Simon, Hannah flits like a ghost from scene to scene, affecting nothing and matters not one iota, in the grand scheme of things. Her only expression seems to be a mild hint of confusion (or is it just gas?) and we get so little character development as to make her seem more symbolic than anything else. While several aspects of the film disappointed me, few were as vexing as the complete marginalization of Wasikowska.
The single biggest issue with the film, however, is just how hollow and meaningless the whole thing, ultimately, ends up feeling. While never intended as a particularly “warm” bit of entertainment, I was still expecting to feel something by the end of the final reel. As it stands, however, the only emotions I really walked out with were my previously mentioned disappointment, along with an overriding sense of frustration over the needlessly complex conclusion. Truth be told, the ending of the film makes absolutely no sense, even from a purely symbolic standpoint: perhaps I would need to go back and reread the original novel but The Double’s head-scratching finale felt more like philosophy freshmen riffing than any sort of “real” conclusion.
For all of this, however, I still find myself in the odd position of not really disliking the film…at least, not much. Despite the film’s many flaws, Richard Ayoade is an extremely talented filmmaker – his debut, Submarine (2010), is a rather excellent coming-of-age flick and the craftwork behind The Double is quite nice. I’ve always been a sucker for this kind of dystopic worldview and dystopia is one thing that The Double has in bushels. There are plenty of creepy moments to be found here (Simon’s first glimpse of “himself” is a real goosebump-raiser), along with some thought-provoking ideas about what it means to “be yourself,” as well as the frightening notion that, somewhere out there, there’s a more accomplished version of yourself then you’ll ever be. For a society obsessed with being the very best, this may be the hardest pill of all to swallow: no matter how much you want it, some thing’s are just out of your control.