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Dead Ringers

The Double (2013)


Sometimes the scheduling at film festivals and the sheer volume and variety of consumed material causes some unlikely connections and comparisons to emerge that would otherwise pass unnoticed. “The Double” received its 57th BFI London Film Festival press screening directly after Terry Gilliam’s latest, “The Zero Theorem,” and for the first half an hour it felt like we’d been left stranded in Mr. Gilliam’s universe. Both films are notionally very different, but the opening act of Richard Ayoade’s second feature will draw comparisons with “Brazil” in the way it posits its hero amidst an unforgiving and absurdist bureaucratic nightmare.

In fact, “The Double” recalls several films visually and tonally, notably some works of Roman Polanski’s and Orson Welles’s “The Trial” in particular. Some may be surprised by Mr. Ayoade’s cine-literacy and visual expressiveness, certainly in comparison with his first film, “Submarine,” which was generally rooted in the humble origins of small-scale British comic drama, despite its lush cinematography and Wes Anderson-esque flourishes. This redoubling of cinematic flamboyance from the former comedian and actor may raise some eyebrows in Britain; while not being as incongruous a cultural rebirth as Takeshi Kitano’s was to Japanese audiences, it’s still roughly akin to Americans imagining, say, that Aziz Ansari had directed a film like “Black Swan.”

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a nervous and shy office administrator who seems to be permanently at war with office technology, losing an endless battle against recalcitrant lifts, doors and photocopiers. (Mr. Eisenberg is no Chaplin when it comes to this kind of material, but he just about carries it off.) In any case his photocopying woes are largely exaggerated because he’s smitten by the girl manning the copy room, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who also happens to live in the apartment block directly opposite his, although he’s too shy to profess to her his true feelings.

One day a new employee starts at the company: James Simon (also Mr. Eisenberg), who looks exactly like Simon — not just similar looking, but precisely identical down to the same suit and tie. Of course in the logic of this Kafkaesque nightmare world, nobody except Simon can see the resemblance, partly because, as co-worker Harris (Noah Taylor) explains, Simon is so meekly anonymous himself.

James seems to embody everything Simon seems to lack: confidence, nonchalance and sexuality. Initially wary of each other, the pair begin to form a tentative, mutually beneficial partnership in which James imparts his knowledge of the opposite sex in return for Simon’s help in filing his work reports.

All is well with the arrangement until they decide to take advantage of their resemblance and switch roles, Simon taking Hannah out on a date while pretending to be his doppelgänger, who remains behind the scenes feeding him lines via a hidden earpiece, Cyrano de Bergerac-style. However it ends in disaster when James ends up seducing Hannah himself. From then on the doubles become antagonists, bent on each other’s destruction and fully intent on usurping their adversary’s position in society.

Up until this point the film still maintains a resemblance to the Dostoyevsky novel up on which it’s based, although it couldn’t really be considered a satisfying adaptation. None of the psychological complexities or pre-Freudian connotations contained in the book are really examined. Instead the film offers an aloof, ironic detachment from the hero’s existential crisis in favor of focusing on the surreal hilarity of Simon’s predicament, while always maintaining its empathetic reverence for our loser hero. Woody Allen in the underworld, if you like.

Mr. Ayoade has always come across as something of a cheerleader for nerd culture, primarily because of his role as ultra geek Maurice in British sitcom “The I.T. Crowd”, but also with his championing of outsider teens in “Submarine.” “The Double” represents an interesting development of this kind of kooky shtick by placing its nebbish hero in a genuinely threatening world and offering as much dark menace as light relief.

The result is a tone that’s now closer to Charlie Kaufman’s more melancholy work than Wes Anderson’s spritely confections, and you get the impression Mr. Ayoade is using the film as a bid to be talked about in the same breath as maverick American talents like Mr. Kaufman, Spike Jonze and Harmony Korine. During the first hour of the film one started to find Mr. Ayoade’s endless promotion of his hipster credentials wearying: the art-deco production design, the omnipresent 1980s memorabilia, the Japanese rockabilly on the soundtrack and the constant stream of deadpan cameos from comedians and cult figures (Chris Morris, Tim Key, Chris O’Dowd and, er, J. Mascis).

However eventually the film wore me down and (partially) won me over, largely as a result of a frantic final third in which Mr. Ayoade really ramps up the pace and cranks up the style. The whole film is closeted in an expressionist cloak, with many of the scenes incorporating blacks so deep they’d win the approval of Gordon Willis. (In fact incompetent projectionists and home viewers with improperly calibrated setups may miss out on some of the details if they’re not careful.)

But the delirious finale really goes chiaroscuro crazy, as the film descends into a frenzied tailspin of Gothic hysteria. At this stage the bewildering interchanging of Simon and James eventually becomes hard to keep up with, but Mr. Ayoade turns one of the film’s problems — the difficulty of differentiating Simon from James — into a strength. Up until this point, the film relies completely on Mr. Eisenberg’s acting to individualize the characters, which he only just manages to achieve, but by the end of the film their transposability has become an asset.

The film’s visual strengths make you wish that Mr. Ayoade would stop trying desperately to be hipper than thou, cease obsessing over the 1980s and just get on with the business of pure cinema, which he does seem to have some aptitude for when he really lets loose. Hopefully in time Mr. Ayoade can become more comfortable in his skin, stop angling for the admiration of Hollywood’s trendster elite and deliver a film that follows through on the promise suggested here.


Opens on April 4, 2014 in Britain and on May 9, 2014 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Richard Ayoade; written by Mr. Ayoade and Avi Korine, based on a story by Mr. Korine and the novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; director of photography, Erik Alexander Wilson; edited by Nick Fenton and Chris Dickens; music by Andrew Hewitt; production design by David Crank; costumes by Jacqueline Durran; produced by Robin C. Fox and Amina Dasmal; released by Studiocanal (Britain) and Magnolia Pictures (United States). This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Jesse Eisenberg (Simon/James), Mia Wasikowska (Hannah), Wallace Shawn (Mr. Papadopoulos), Noah Taylor (Harris), Yasmin Paige (Melanie), Cathy Moriarty (Kiki) and James Fox (the Colonel).


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