Double, The (2014)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/09/14 14:12:09

"Twice as cool as you might expect."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2014: It says something, either about my expectations or what Richard Ayoade pulled off, that "The Double" is actually more peculiar than I had figured on a movie about a man meeting a dead ringer who is his opposite in temperament being. Given the fantastic premises that frequently populate mainstream movies today, this could have been fairly conventional, but I do appreciate that Ayoade and company went the extra mile to make it weird.

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) isn't particularly weird himself - he's a quiet but hard worker at the office, unnoticed by his boss (Wallace Shawn) and nursing a crush on Hannah (Miss Wasikowska), the girl at the photocopy desk who lives in the building across the way from his where he often sees her via his telescope... Okay, that's kind of weird. Still, it's not quite on the level of how things get when James Simon joins the company and Simon is told to show the gregarious, charismatic guy who looks just like him the ropes.

It's worth noting that all of this happens in a world that is in some ways modern and is in others halfway between steampunk and Terry Gilliam's Brazil. This may have been done entirely for the purposes of looking cool, as it certainly succeeds on that count - every impeccably designed prop looks mechanical and run down, but basically functional, and the style makes everything easy to grasp without it ever feeling like a real place and time. That also lets Ayoade preserve just as much mystery about the situation as he wants to, no matter what the audience's impulses may be: We're never spending a lot of time trying to figure out how Simon can figure out what's going on; we just assume that this smart and motivated guy who knows the world better than we do is exhausting whatever resources are available and coming up with nothing. And since the world is so strange, we're add off-balance as Simon, rather than able to see some sort of order from the outside.

Jesse Eisenberg sirs in the center of all that strangeness, and he has to be as impressive as he is for it all to hold together. What's kind of interesting is that he often doesn't vary his mannerisms add much as one might expect between Simon and James. They've got the same accent, and neither seems particularly slouched or puffed-up. Sure, Simon is often likely to stop, flustered, than James (who probably never has a hesitation in his speech unless he's affecting surprise for someone else), but they can both use the same deadpan, rapid-fire delivery, albeit for different reasons. There's never any doubt which one is on-screen, and even when one puts the dual role aside, Simon is still a nice performance, awkward and desperate but eager to please in a positive way, with Eisenberg always able to get the guy's hurt across. Whether James's hollowness comes through on its own or just in comparison is tough if not impossible to pin down, but Eisenberg is able to capture both the man's charm and how superficial that sort of charm can be.

He's not doing this alone, of course. In particular, he's got Miss Wasikowska to share scenes with, and while she's not being called upon to play a terribly complex character, she's able to infuse Hannah with all the sweetness and loneliness that Ayoade asks for even when the plot isn't giving her a whole lot to actually do aside from being desirable. There's also Wallace Shawn, whose job here is to be Wallace Shawn, which is fortunately something that a movie that needs a little humor injected into making its main character feel unappreciated can use. There are a bunch of other folks there to basically do one job but who do it well.

Whether those come from Ayoade's and Avi Korine's screenplay or the original novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky, I'm not sure. Whatever the origins of each individual clever bit is, the movie is full of good moments, and Ayoade strings them together into a story with a nice ebb and flow even though the story is actually quite basic. It does lead to an ending that is a bit of a leap from the story that comes before, which often happens when a movie is prioritizing mystery and metaphor over a singular mythology the way The Double does for most of its runtime.

It's an acceptable tradeoff for the eerie, fascinating atmosphere around it, though. "The Double" could have been done as a contemporary story or a period tale, maybe even been an exciting thriller that way. The story we get may be simple, but it's engrossing, both to look at and ponder.

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