Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Movie Review: The Double

The Double
Directed by: Richard Ayoade.
Written by: Richard Ayoade & Avi Korine based on the novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Simon / James), Mia Wasikowska (Hannah), Wallace Shawn (Mr. Papadopoulos), Noah Taylor (Harris), James Fox (The Colonel), Cathy Moriarty (Kiki), Phyllis Somerville (Simon's Mother), Gabrielle Downey (Strange Woman), Yasmin Paige (Melanie Papadopoulos), Jon Korkes (Detective), Craig Roberts (Young Detective), Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Guard / Doctor), Paddy Considine ('The Replicator' – Jack).

The Double is a vision of the future from out of the past. It shows us a futuristic world that will never be, but that someone like Kafka or Orwell could have dreamed up. It’s a film that feels both familiar and yet completely original. It’s the second film this year, following Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, in which a movie star plays two identical characters who didn’t know the other existed when the movie started. Strangely, while I think both are surreal nightmare – and both feel like something David Cronenberg might have directed in the 1980s, the films are still completely different – and equally fascinating.

Jessie Eisenberg stars as Simon James, a low level employee of some sort of big processing firm run by The Colonel (James Fox) – an almost mythical like creature that you barely catch a glimpse of, except on TV. He has been there for seven years doing good work, and he’s all sorts of ideas on how to improve efficiency, but he is so quiet and meek that his boss (Wallace Shawn) doesn’t remember his name, and when his employee access pass stops working, the security guard he sees every day has no idea who he is. He is in love with the girl who works in the copy room – Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) – although she, as well, barely notices him. One day, while he’s spying on Hannah (he lives in the building across from her, and looks at her through a telescope) – he sees a man jump to his death from her building – giving him a sad little wave before he jumps. He meets a pair of detectives – who tell him they are in charge of nothing but suicides in the neighborhood, and want to know if he’s planning on killing himself (“Put him down as a maybe”). Then he finally gets a chance to talk to Hannah at the small diner in the neighborhood, where the waitress (Cathy Moriaty) is rude to him and screws up his order. Then one day a new employee is hired. This is James Simon – and he looks exactly like Simon James – but is really his complete opposite. He is confident and outgoing, and immediately makes an impression on everyone in the office – even though he has no understanding of what they actually do there. Worse, no one seems to notice that he looks exactly like Simon – except for James himself. Under the guise of helping Simon, James slowly sets out to ruin his doppelganger’s life.

The idea behind The Double is not exactly original. It is based on a novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky – and it wasn’t even all that original when he wrote it in 1846. The movie was adapted (along with Avi Korine) and directed by Richard Ayoade whose visual style in The Double owes a lot to movies like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Both films create a futuristic world that at the same time feels like it belongs to the past. I cannot foresee any version of the future that looks like the world of The Double – as technology has already well surpassed what’s on display in this movie – and yet it’s not a world out of the past either. It takes place in some strange, alternate universe that resembles ours, but isn’t the same.

Eisenberg is pretty much perfectly cast as Simon James and James Simon – allowing him to show the two distinct aspects of his screen persona. As Simon, he is meek, neurotic, shy, awkward and smarter than anyone realizes. As James, he is a complete and total asshole. It’s almost as if Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg has been split into two characters for The Double, allowing Eisenberg to isolate different parts of his psyche. At first I worried that Mia Wasikowska was going to be little more than the “dream girl” in the movie – female perfection personified that the hero has to fight for and “gets” her as a “reward” at the end of the movie. But her Hannah is far more complicated than that – more complicated in fact than either Simon or James is by themselves, which I think works as Eisenberg’s twin characters are really just half a character each.

I mentioned Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy earlier in the review – and the comparison is inevitable, as both films debuted at TIFF last fall, and both came out in theaters within a few months of each other this year. Personally, I think Enemy is the better film – a little more complex, as I think the two characters played by Jake Gyllenhaal in that film are complete by themselves, whereas the two characters Eisenberg plays are really half a character, who needs the other to complete them. But The Double is more fun to watch – darkly funny throughout, with a great visual style by Ayoade – who has grown leaps and bounds from his already fine debut film Submarine (the two teenage leads in that film show up here – Craig Roberts as one of the suicide detectives and Yasmin Paige as Wallace Shawn’s daughter).  The films feel connected and yet utterly different. They’re both among the best of the year so far.

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