"You're in my place."
Writer & director Richard Ayoade is probably best known to American audiences for his role on the series The IT Crowd or, depressingly enough, his role in the 2012 film The Watch. Savvier comedy fans will know that Ayoade was the co-creator of one of the most brilliantly subversive pieces of comedy ever, the short-lived cult classic Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. Ayoade took the leap to feature film directing with 2010's Submarine, a charming, if derivative little film that wore its heart and its homages on its sleeve. Ayoade is back behind the camera with The Double, a mind-bending film that plays simultaneously to both of actor Jesse Eisenberg's wildly different strengths.
Simon James (Eisenberg) is a nobody employee for a nondescript company run by someone called The Colonel (James Fox). He is micromanaged by a fussy boss (Wallace Shawn), and is obsessed with a woman named Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) who works in the office and lives in the building directly adjacent to his. Simon's crippling social anxiety prevents him from talking to her at work, at home, or on the train, so he contents himself with spying on her via a telescope in his apartment. While watching her one night, a man on the ledge above her window catches his eye. The man waves to Simon and then jumps to his death. When the police arrive, Simon tells them what he saw and strikes up his first real conversation with Hannah.
The next day at work, a new employee is introduced to everyone. James Simon (Eisenberg) is Simon's exact double, though no one seems to notice outside of Simon. That night on the train, James strikes up a conversation with Simon and the two begin a friendship predicated on the fact that James is everything Simon is not: confident, arrogant, self-assured, and charming. James begins to exploit Simon's brain, as well as the fact that they look alike, to try and get ahead at the company. However, problems arise when James begins seducing Hannah with information about her that he's gleaned from Simon. It isn't long before James begins using Simon's meekness against him, and Simon must decide to either take matters into his own hands, or end it all.
Unlike most thrillers, foreknowledge of plot details will not spoil your enjoyment of the film at all. As a matter of fact, it would probably be wise to get as much information about the film as possible because the mystery is so vague in this film, and the answers are far from forthcoming. Even by the end, people who have paid attention to all of the clues will find themselves flabbergasted by the conclusion. I'm not going to spoil any of the details here, but this is one of the more baffling films I've ever seen. Unlike Under the Skin where the lack of information only added to the mystique of the entire film, here the lack of information only grows more aggravating as you begin to wonder not just how everything will pay off, but if any of it will pay off at all.
Thankfully the film is stylish enough to hold your attention, and Ayoade is nothing if not a clever visual stylist. The film is equal parts Brazil, Fight Club, Rear Window, and Eraserhead, and Ayoade is adept enough to ride the line between paying tribute to these films and creating a world that is still uniquely his own. Film geeks will really get their rocks off trying to spot the various homages and cameos that abound in the film, and a running gag involving Paddy Considine as a television star on some sort of Euro-trash 70s sci-fi show is one of the film's funniest and best conceits. His shot compositions are fantastic, and the film always looks amazing, even as it dwells in less than amazing settings, but it just feels a bit too much like it's trying to figure things out as it goes along rather than heading towards a definitive conclusion. By the end, the film feels as though it's reached the only possible conclusion to things rather than the best possible conclusion.
As a showcase for Jesse Eisenberg, the film may be even better than his Oscar-nominated turn in The Social Network. Allowing him to play polar opposite characters, each of which cater to his thoroughly different talents, is a stroke of genius. As much as he continues to have a corner on the nebbishy doubting Thomas type, he's actually a much more effective actor when playing the dickish, arrogant, Mark Zuckerberg-type, and seeing him play both ends of the spectrum is a delight. Wasikowska is also very good, continuing to surprise each time out of the gate lately, and making her ill-fated Alice in Wonderland a distant memory by this point in time. Shawn is also having a blast, playing the Ian Holm in Brazil-esque boss, and shades of his legendary performance as Vizzini are in no short supply. The cameos in the film are also great, and not worth spoiling outside of the aforementioned Considine.
The script is probably the film's weakest element. In the early going, it plays like a perfect thriller, gleefully setting up pins you just know they're going to delight in knocking down later. Unfortunately, there's a bit of a bait and switch at work here, and the film more or less abandons pay-offs to many of its early set-ups in favor of continuing to build a mystery you wonder if it will ever solve. There's not a definite conclusion to things, even though it seems as if there's going to be one up until the film's final moments. Instead you're just left with a handful of, admittedly, striking images and a whole bunch of question marks. Were the film not so well-made, this lack of a satisfactory conclusion would be twice as enervating.
The Double is an admirable film, it's just not a very good one. It's impeccably made and shot, it just feels like a mishmash collision of ideas that never really reconcile with one another. It's confusing, but not in a fun way. Perhaps a second viewing will make the pieces come together in a much more obvious way, but I just wasn't taken enough by the film to want to see it again any time soon. Eisenberg continues to surprise and Ayoade shows that if perhaps he were a director for hire on a film he didn't script, he might be able to make something truly great and unique. Instead it's the kind of uniqueness that lies in an elaborately tacky tchotchke your grandmother might have made at a crafting class. You can nod in admiration at the imagination involved in its creation while simultaneously questioning the decision making abilities of the person who made it.
GO Rating: 2.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]