I had never watched an episode of The IT Crowd before watching Richard Ayoade’s feature directorial debut, Submarine, a few years back. I have still yet to see an episode, as I fear it will ruin how sweet and beautiful that film was to watch. It has a nostalgic energy unlike most new age independent films, and has a distinct and unique voice to it. It was exciting to watch, and made me clamour to see what Ayoade (pronounced eye-oh-ah-dee for those just as confused as I was) had in store for us next.
Using the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky as a jumping-off point, Ayoade’s second feature, The Double, revolves around lowly factory worker Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg). One morning, a man forces Simon out of his seat on an otherwise empty train, eventually revealing himself to be James Simon (Eisenberg) – his doppelgänger. Simon is introverted and quiet, whereas James is confident, successful and outgoing. Slowly, James begins usurping everything from Simon, including his accomplishments and even the object of his affection, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). And Simon is not going to stand for that.
Your enjoyment of The Double depends solely on how you feel about Ayoade’s off-beat humour. Submarine was so great because of its nuisances and the wry wit it wore on its sleeve. But it was fun to watch from the beginning to end. The Double on the other hand, is dark to the point of being bleak, and is only punctuated with bouts of ridiculous humour that are more awkward than genuinely funny. I laughed quite often, but it was more out of confusion and ridiculousness than anything else. Ayoade seems to take pride in pushing the limits of acceptable comedy here, and many will be instantly turned off by how pretentious everything seems.
But then that seems to be half the point, as so many moments in the film seem to be best described as a disjointed series of images and events. There is very little in the film that connects properly, and as Simon descends into hysteria and jealousy over what James is accomplishing, the film takes the same spiral plunge. It comes off as very chaotic, and is not instantly clear what Ayoade is going for exactly. He certainly wants to evoke a feeling. But outside of having the exact same look of exasperation and confusion that Eisenberg wears throughout the film, I cannot for the life of me think of how else to feel or perceive it.
What Ayoade does succeed with in the film is giving it a dystopic, darkened look. There is very little bright light that ever strikes the frame, and I cannot even recall a single scene that takes place in daylight. Everything is dark and grey, with no real sense of colour (outside of a hyperactive spacey television show starring Paddy Considine). The film has an indiscernible time period – which is deliberate – but it helps add to the enigmatic nature of the dystopia he creates for Simon. He sees things as mundane, and very black and white. It defines his existence really, giving the setting an equal footing alongside the characters. As others have pointed out, the dystopic look of The Double is very reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s near-brilliant Brazil, minus the science fiction and zany dream sequences. Whether that is deliberate or not is up for debate, but it looks very much like an obvious influence.
Ayoade also makes a clever and interesting usage of sound in the film. Everything is loud and obnoxious, from the television set to the copy machine. Even footsteps and knocking on a door seem intrusive. The voices and subtly used music also seem to have been raised, including during hushed discussions. All of these elements help act alongside the setting to really define Simon as a character, and really give the film its distinct feel.
Eisenberg carries the film in the dual roles of Simon and James and puts in more effort than he usually does. He pulls off an especially over-anxious version of his near-stereotypical confused, misunderstood young adult role with ease, convincing and confusing us at every turn. But he gets to have even more fun playing the exact opposite of that character, and really acting against type. He is not afforded nearly enough scenes acting as James, but he is positively gleeful whenever he does. Movie magic allows the two characters to exist and interact with each other at the same time, but Eisenberg really sells it on-screen. I just wish he was nearly as passionate and enthusiastic about every other project he has been involved with as of late.
Supporting wise, there are no real standouts. Wallace Shawn gets some fun moments as Simon and James’ boss Mr. Papadopoulos, and it is great seeing Ayoade bring back Considine, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor and Submarine’s lovers Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige (looking a lot more grown up than when we last saw them). If there is a weak link, it is Wasikowska. She is given so little to do outside of being the pretty girl Simon longs for that it is almost insulting. She does well with what she has, but it is obvious that her character is a bit stilted with motivations that are never fully explored.
The Double is an odd and wacky film, but it is one that has a very distinct look to it. The feeling, much like the content of the film, is a little harder to read, but director Ayoade has created an interesting work nonetheless. He somehow managed to coax a great dual performance out of Eisenberg, but he sadly underuses Wasikowska. The film will have its cult fans, but it is definitely not one for mass consumption.
Bleak and seldomly hilarious, The Double is a unique wonder that has a great look but an incredibly confusing feeling to it.