Richard Ayoade’s debut feature film Submarine may have only had a brief theatrical run in the States, but it made quite an impression on those who saw it. While many critics dismissed the film as being too similar to the work of Wes Anderson, Submarine in fact deftly implemented its Anderson influence with enough charm and style to carve out a unique voice of its own. It didn’t hurt that it was one of the few “coming of age” stories that allowed its lead character to be a relatively realistic teenage boy. In other words: not entirely likable. That film’s bright, exuberant color palette and original soundtrack could not be more different than Ayoade’s follow-up, The Double. When it was announced and playing film festivals, there was not much around like it; now that it’s being released on home video, it finds itself in the midst of a strange boom in doppelgänger films. It is to Ayoade’s credit that The Double stands well apart from those other films.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Simon James, a socially awkward nobody who slaves away anonymously at an ill-defined office job. His workplace makes the offices in Brazil seem cheery: every desk is set in a pool of dim light, like torches set along the walls in an underground cave. Building security requires him to sign in every day, and his boss Mr. Popodopoulos (Wallace Shawn) constantly mistakes him for a new hire, despite having worked for the company for seven years. Even worse, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) the Copier Girl seems unimpressed by his presence at the copy counter every day, looking to make a single copy of his work on the company’s gigantic steampunk copy machine. Simon pines for her and spies on her with a telescope whenever they’re not at work. He’s the kind of guy for whom automatic doors do not wait to close when he steps in front of them.
Then one day a new hire appears at work: James Simon (also Eisenberg), Simon’s exact physical double. They look and dress identically, but James has completely the opposite personality. He’s charming, gregarious, flirtatious, and asserts himself to the point of near sociopathy. No one other than Simon seems to notice their resemblance, but since nobody noticed Simon much in the first place, that makes sense. James insinuates himself into the life of the people around Simon effortlessly: Mr. Popodopoulos praises him as a model employee (despite James having no idea what their company even does), Hannah is instantly infatuated with him, and even Mr. Popodopoulos’s hateful daughter Melanie (Yasmin Paige) lusts after him. Simon’s life starts to unravel as James threatens to take over Simon’s existence completely.
There is a lot to admire about The Double, which features excellent work from everyone on both sides of the camera. It looks and sounds amazing: stark, ominous shadows out of the darkest film noir contrast with splashes of color straight out of Suspiria. The soundtrack and sound design create a unique sense of nightmarish disorientation. The bleak world of the film is tiny, claustrophobic, and always dark, and most of the humor here is shaded to match. It’s often very funny, and the cast is great. It is also dotted with so many unexpected cameos that it’s almost overwhelming. And yet building this film on the foundation of such a frustratingly ineffectual character–and one we have seen so many times before–leaves the film with a distracting emotional hole at its center. This is not to fault Eisenberg’s dual performances, which are impressive in creating the illusion of two completely separate personalities in identical bodies. It’s more a problem of a protagonist who never quite manages to earn the audience’s respect. Despite this (admittedly major) issue, The Double is absolutely recommended viewing to any serious cinephile, and it will improve with repeat viewings.
Magnolia released The Double on DVD and Blu-ray 26 August 2014. Special features include featurettes on the cast & characters, story & design, special effects, an interview with Richard Ayoade, “AXS TV: A Look at The Double,” and the film’s trailer.