The Double is one of the best-looking movies of the year. Sadly, it doesn’t have much in the way of story, dramatic thrust, or emotional resonance.
Richard Ayoade’s The Double looks like Terry Gilliam by way of Eraserhead. It takes place in a bleak, sunless world of ancient office machines that grind and glow, but lend no warmth or comfort. Subways snake through maze-like tunnels, dropping pale, unhappy people off at unclear office jobs that require eight levels of management approval to get anything done. Everything is bathed in the unhealthy, yellowed flickering light of awful fluorescents. It’s hard to tell if this is the past or the future. The Double doesn’t quite have the visual ambition of something like Brazil, but its impact is similar. The design of this universe is awesome to look at, and the quiet, ever-present grinding of machines lends to an overall sense of unease.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), the film’s hero, has been working in the same office for seven years, and no one seems to notice him. Suicide is regular in this universe, and there are special police who do nothing but investigate suicides. Simon dreams of asking out the mousy copy girl (Mia Wasikowska), but has been too timid. Then one day, Simon’s office hires a new, much more capable employee. His name is James Simon, and he is identical to Simon James in every way, right down to the boring gray suit. He is also played by Eisenberg. James is more confident, more alluring, and more popular than Simon.
Although The Double is based on a short story by Dostoyevsky, you would be forgiven in mistaking it for Kafka. Two identical men who serve the same position in a faceless office block, wracked by suicide? That is most certainly Kafka’s purview. And for the first third of the film, one can become lost in the accountant’s version of Steampunk that Ayoade has created.
The problem is, The Double‘s visuals are its only appeal. As it grinds bleakly forward, taking us from one great-looking set piece to the next, you begin to get the sinking sensation that the film isn’t really about much. There is one confident, brash, even rule-breaking Eisenberg, and there is one timid, shy, honest, forgotten Eisenberg. But since no one even seems to notice that they’re identical, and nothing really comes of the story, the film quickly begins to unravel. Nothing clever ever happens with this creative setup, and pretty soon it begins to play like a bitter comedy film rather than an absurdist musing.
Dostoyevsky was a master at creating philosophical avatars, allowing his character to wholly embody a certain way of thinking, while still allowing them to interact with the world in a believable way; he’s one of the best novelists to have ever lived. In The Double, however, the two Eisenbergs play more like flimsy joke setups than diametrically opposed halves of the same man, as I can only assume was the intention. With such a rich world and such a delightfully weird premise, one would hope that more could be done with thematic intricacies.
This is Ayoade’s second feature film as a director after the pretty-good coming-of-age drama Submarine from 2010. Both films have shown a lot of promise, and Ayoade is a far more ambitious and idiosyncratic director than many first-timers. He just needs to learn how to point his wacky visual ideas in a more heady direction, and he may actually do something great someday. For the time being, it seems like he’s still figuring some stuff out.
Rating: 2 Burritos