Movie Review: The Double (2014)- A Visually Refreshing and Bitingly Humorous Take on the Madness of Homogenization

the-double-jesse-eisenbergIdentity as a concept has sort of rescinded into the subconscious concerns of modern day society and is a value that is taken for granted by most now that social media puts everyone’s so called identity into an aspect of importance. The paranoia of homogenization in a fully industrialized society or bureaucratically ran dystopia has evaporated from the forefront of societal concerns but with voices easily copied and personas even easier to mimic it still is very much a relevant fear that director and writer Richard Ayoade set out to highlight in his latest independent feature The Double. Based on the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel of the same name and penned for the screen by Richard Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine, The Double is a refreshingly stylish yet slightly monotonous reflection on an identity stolen within the surreal confines of a comically absurd dystopian reality. The Double is sort of an amalgamation of diverse and intriguing influences for Ayoade as he blends the absurdist creativity from his time as a writer for the British TV show The Mighty Boosh with a vast variety of cinematic homages from Terry Gilliam’s comic surrealism to David Lynch’s haunting atmosphere to the Coen Brothers’ inventive dark lighting schemes. As Ayoade’s second feature it is surprising that The Double deviates so far from his first feature Submarine (2010)in content but remains similar in visual flare, humorous insight, and intriguing character dynamics just now set in a breathtakingly refreshing dystopian environment.  The bleak tone of Ayoade’s The Double could indeed be off-putting to most regular theater attendees and it at times drifts into a monotonous presentation that almost resembles a flat line of plot driven events. However, with the help of lead Jesse Eisenberg in a riveting master class duel performance it lifts the potentially flat narrative into something far more substantial bringing to light the real paranoia of drifting into obscurity either being the faceless cog of a corporate machine or a lifeless drone taking part in the governed bureaucratic nightmare. Ayoade has begun to mold himself as an independent auteur and with his latest The Double he has certainly brought a confidence in direction to an undoubtedly surreal concept that is heightened by the dusty, low-tech set design reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the dimly lit atmospheric corridors hinting at Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, and the otherworldly dynamics of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Looking at The Double as an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s original work there is clearly a respectful direction taken by Richard Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine to capture the original novel’s intent on the slant toward madness or rather the psychological struggle within the lead character’s fragile mental state. However, seeing as how there exists a dualistic relationship between pushover lead character Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) and his confident, extroverted Doppelgänger James Simon (also Jesse Eisenberg) there seems to be a duality of purpose for Ayoade as well. On the one hand there exists in the script a full immersion into the madness of Simon who believes his face has been stolen by his polar opposite Doppelgänger but on the other hand there also seems to be a cautionary tale of faceless identity in a bureaucratic nightmare state where even the most humdrum existence is important to hold onto. This means that while our followed protagonist might indeed be going insane, an aspect that is explored casually in a comedic sense through Ayoade and Korine’s setup of the character Simon in his basic livelihood, his fears are very much real possibilities and probably an extension of his own feebleness in personality. Ayoade and Korine’s script has an immense amount of detail to the character relationships, the imagined design of the dystopian environment, and the thoughtfulness in metaphorical concept within their narrative that is ironically translated into simple visuals and an intended style. What’s truly strong about the script is that The Double balances its influences tightly utilizing surrealist humor for levity and David Lynchian creepiness for an unsettling reality making the film a true comedy of depressing misfortune. In the end the oddity that is The Double becomes a refreshing portrait of existential madness that is as equally funny in presentation as it is unsettling in conceptual reality making the film an exceptionally surreal yet familiar dive into the dystopian Rabbit Hole. The script’s tightly written absurdist foundation serves as a creative blueprint for Ayoade’s direction and technical collaborations that all come together to make a truly stylish, inventive, and memorable dystopian comedy.

The Double, Sundance Film Festival 2014

Where The Double really finds its stride is in the capable directing hands of Richard Ayaode who is able to create a boldly imaginative futuristic dystopia that has all of the designs of a bureaucratic nightmare filled with dated technology, an unmotivated workforce, and the endless possibility of being forgotten. Because of his confident handling of cinema’s most artful elements he is able to make his script’s familiar thematic concepts become unquestionably fresh in his vibrantly visual surroundings and bleak overtones. With the low lighting, the dusty and low-tech set designs, and the heightened sense of eeriness within the plain corridors and minimalist apartments/offices Ayoade has created real felt dystopia on equal level to perhaps Kafka’s futuristic visions that have previously been done by the likes of Orson Welles in The Trial (1962) and by Steven Soderbergh in Kafka (1991). And yet everything visually in The Double seems unique at the hands of cinematographer Erik Wilson who makes sure the surrealism is at the forefront of images where the darkened hallways are that of a darkened mind where the light that can shine on sanity is being depleted from this absurdist reality. There’s a hint of sepia or rather a golden glow to the bleak darkness throughout The Double almost reminiscent of Lars Von Triers’ visual tapestry in The Element of Crime (1984) that gives the visual tone a hint of the comedic where it’s humorous that everything is treated so darkly. Another element that reminds us that nothing about The Double should be taken as melodramatic seriousness is the humorous addition of the vintage Japanese pop soundtrack and Andrew Hewitt’s score that brings that needed sense of levity to Simon’s decline into existential madness. There’s a loud obviousness to the influences that Ayoade taps into for The Double but the film doesn’t dwell on the borrowed styles, the overt references, or the mimicking tactics inevitably transcending homage into a truly refreshing personal style that blends these influences into purposeful tools instead of copied gimmicks. Perhaps the films and styles that Ayoade references and borrows from all have an emotional weight that is superior to Ayoade’s film but there is something refreshing in establishing a personal creative stamp on a genre that seemed all too devoid of inventive spirit.

All of these inventive technical uses from the minimalist set designs to the darkly humorous tone established by the cinematography create an effective environment for the acting performances to flourish and add the last bit of flare that is needed to make a film such as The Double truly effective. At the heart of the humorous misfortune that befalls lead character Simon is Jesse Eisenberg in a tour de force performance as two polar opposite Doppelgängers as he brings each differing personality to full life in what almost seems like an easy feat for the young actor. His portrayal of weak willed, antisocial, and borderline stalker Simon showcases a performance of restraint where most of Simon’s fears are internally felt as his posture, choice of words, and most importantly his actions shout reserved, weak, and fearful. On the other side is Simon’s Doppelgänger James who exudes confidence through his determination to get what he wants when he wants it such as forcing a local diner to make him breakfast after breakfast hours through his use of towering swagger. Though seeing the separate personalities come to life is awe-inspiring in performance by itself it’s truly a wonder to see Jesse Eisenberg in scenes where he interacts with himself where you truly see the complexities of his multilayered dualistic performance at work. Within The Double there are numerous characters that serve as simply that, characters to move Simon’s descent into madness forward. The wonderful Mia Wasikowska thrives in these surreal, dark environments, as evidenced with her work in Stoker (2013), Jane Eyre (2011), and Only Lovers Left Alive (2014), and as Simon’s love interest Hannah she truly makes her presence known and her inner vulnerability felt. The only other notable presence in the film beyond the humorous cast of borderline cameos, including Noah Taylor (Game of Thrones), Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids), and James Fox (The Servant), is that of playwright and character actor Wallace Shawn whose physical presence in movies has been limited in recent years but he brings a comedic touch to the surreal environment around him wherever his character goes. As much as a full cast is usually required the only performance to note is that of Jesse Eisenberg who creates two very individualized characters with a confidence and bravado rarely seen in actors today making it seem as though Eisenberg is capable of anything.

double-full-trailer

Does Richard Ayoade’s The Double reinvent the dystopian comedy or tackle new ground in its ambitious visual style? Not particularly, but it’s worth noting that in the film’s presentational cleverness filled with  cinematic homage and bleak commentary on identity there is a real insight to be had on the madness of complacency, whether that’s corporate cog complacency or government bureaucrat drone complacency. Though The Double doesn’t necessarily tackle any new conceptual ideas that doesn’t mean that Ayoade’s visual flare and comically bleak energy aren’t enough reason alone to visit a remarkably fresh rendition on revisited dystopian fears. All of the creative collaborations on the minimalist sets and the visual tone have created a substantially comedic dystopian universe that might not make you feel but it will have you leave the theater intellectually stimulated and perhaps question the possibility of your own existential descent into madness. Ayoade’s second film The Double serves both as an establishing film for a director finding his voice in the medium creating a fresh cinematic style while also allowing a truly remarkable actor Jesse Eisenberg to challenge himself and expand his dramatic horizons. As it is with most surreal cinematic journeys The Double isn’t meant for everyone but it certainly serves as a validation that cinema can still be inventively bold and surprisingly thought provoking.

Grade: B+

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