Richard Ayoade might be best known as an actor and a comedian, but he blew away critics with his 2010 coming-of-age directorial debut, Submarine. With his second movie as a director, The Double, Ayoade explores material that is darker, but still with a dash of humor that shows his growing as a director even if it isn’t of the same quality of Submarine.
In The Double, which is an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyesky’s 168 year-old short novel, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a low-level employee in a dark, dreary office. He’s unappreciated by his boss Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), who doesn’t even realize that Simon has worked there for seven years, and he goes completely unnoticed by coworker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), whom he has an unrequited crush on. However, one day Simon’s life is thrown a curve when a new employee joins the office, James Simon (also Eisenberg). While Simon and James look exactly the same — even down to their ill-fitting suits — James is confident, cocky, and cool, quickly winning over Mr. Papadopoulos and Hannah despite having zero aptitude for the office work. Simon strikes up a deal with James — Simon will do James’ work and James will set Simon up with Hannah. However, before long James starts taking over all aspects of Simon’s life, with hardly anyone noticing that they look exactly the same.
I’ve never liked the typical “Jesse Eisenberg” character — in my opinion, no modern actor has played the same type of character so many times and somehow manages to receive constant praise for it — so as the movie began I was preparing myself for another insufferable dose of Eisenberg mumbling through a movie as he plays someone uncomfortable in his own skin. So while I enjoyed seeing Eisenberg as “James” because the suave, sweet-talking James is so much outside of his typical role, it’s hard to buy Eisenberg in such a role because I can’t imagine women fawning over him simply because he has a few good lines. But I guess that adds to the insanity.
Which brings me to the main issue I have with The Double: it isn’t clear what the film’s “rules” are. Some people recognize that Simon and James look exactly the same, but others do not, including those seeing them standing right next to each other. Sure, one can say that the narrative doesn’t make sense in these parts because Simon is losing his mind, but that’s too easy of an explanation. It’s impossible for me to let something like that slide when films with similar “double” devices like in Fight Club and The Prestige pull it off without resorting to such an easy explanation, especially since Dostoyevsky’s story doesn’t have the same narrative problem.
The best aspect of The Double is the production design, which sets the movie in some weird pseudo-modern society with giant photocopy machines and computers with the graphics capability of a Tandy 1000 (look it up, young’uns). Furthermore, the cramped, dark interiors are so reminiscent of those in Brazil that I wouldn’t be surprised if production designer David Crank found a cache of set dressing and props from Terry Gilliam‘s masterpiece. The fact that there’s a big brother-like character called The Colonel that seems to oversee everything in this society certainly adds to that 1984/Brazil feeling.
There are also several very funny quips between Simon and James, but because of the dark narrative it’s hard to call The Double a comedy. Perhaps I would’ve liked it more if there was a stronger actor in the lead role(s) and the narrative followed set rules. I understand that Ayoade is probably trying to say something about corporate society and how it makes workers just cogs in a massive machine. But it isn’t exactly a profound message when movies from more than fifty years ago, like Billy Wilder‘s The Apartment, had the same message.
RATING: While an interesting departure for Ayoade and featuring excellent production design, The Double is more style over substance (6/10).