(SPOILERS) I didn’t quite feel the unreserved raves Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut Submarine received, but I liked it well enough and could see it carried across his idiosyncratic sense of humour – albeit in more overtly dark and twisted form – from his funny man persona. Most impressively, also was a fully formed technical confidence and filmmaking craft. His follow-up, based on Dostoyevsky’s novella, reinforces those opinions but its decidedly the lesser beast. It is at once a keenly stylised piece of world building and underwhelming in terms of personality. We’ve seen this story before, many, many times. And many of those many times have been in the last 15 years. The parallel that springs to mind is Duncan Jones following Moon with the accomplished but generic Source Code. The Double confirms Ayoade’s skill as a director, but on thematically well-worn material.
Which may seem harsh, but we all saw Fight Club a decade and a half ago (some of us even watched it on a big screen), and there the doppelganger theme was used shrewdly not only in terms of character and plotting but propped up a clever, pitch black satire. It was a smart movie, densely layered and stylishly told, one that utilised its twist in a manner that yielded further rewards on repeat viewing. The Double doesn’t store up its reveal, and neither does it have much to say beyond the obvious. Introvert and extrovert. That’s all that’s on offer; the rest is (mostly) production design and Ayoade’s, shall we say, eclectic (others might say annoying) soundtrack choices.
It isn’t always best to be return to “the original and best” or hallowed source (or earliest renowned example) of an idea or a theme. When it has been rigorously plundered, as the doppelganger theme has, it can end up looking fragile and derivative itself. Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother, but let’s not hold that against him) are fairly respectful, up until they swipe from Fight Club for their ending. Jess Eisenberg is, surprisingly, cast as a feckless, insecure loser Simon James. Everyone ignores him, tramples upon him or uses him. The girl he spies on through a telescope, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) has no interest in him. His mother (Phyllis Somerville) offers him verbal abuse. Then, one day at work, James Simon is introduced, who looks the spit of James. Except he’s confident, relaxed, a hit with the boss (Wallace Shawn, underused) and the ladies (including the boss’s daughter, Yasmin Paige). He’s also a bit of dick. He’s as if The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg was able to turn on the charm. Despite his initial shock, Simon strikes up a friendship with James. But he slowly comes to realise James is usurping his life; his work, his interests, his loves.
Ayoade and Korine have little interest in imbuing a literally explicable logic to the tale, the like of which we see in Fight Club’s flashbacks; Simon and James are shown and discussed in contact with others in the same space, so the whole must be interpreted symbolically or as Simon’s movie-long fugue. That might work fine if there was a sufficiently different take involved, but the pervasive familiarity makes the whole an overly cute study instead of deliriously unfettered, or unhinged; if it isn’t fully coherent, its because its sticking rigidly to the idea that this sort of schism doesn’t have to make sense. As such, this is all very restrained and co-ordinated; a rigorously designed microcosm with a dustily mustered through-line.
It’s there in the sub-Brazil design and the little guy pining after an out-of-his-league girl, buried beneath bureaucracy and his own mediocrity. It’s there in the casting of Eisenberg, informing a very limited playground as far as extremes of behaviour are concerned. Eisenberg isn’t bad, but we’ve seen him do the geek apologist act before (it seems like many times). We’ve also seen many varied and more vibrant doppelganger acts, from Jerry Lewis to Eddie Murphy to Jim Carrey on the comic side to Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Irons and Sir Roger Moore on the psychodrama front. The guy who never gets served in a bar may be close to Ayoade’s heart but becomes tiresome when it seems to be merely imitating others who have done it better.
There are some neat (or cute, if one wants to strike a withering note) structural devices; Simon always asks for single photocopies when he finds an excuse to visit Hannah, when doubles are expected; the foreshadowing of the fate that befalls Simon, with the obsessive who hassles Hannah and is clearly a fit for Simon in his obsession; the final sequence, in which Simon devises his means of dealing with James, is satisfyingly constructed and executed. The scene where Simon helplessly watches James and Hannah kiss while he is beset by noisy interruptions preventing eavesdropping is the expert comedy of the frustrated fool. And the escalation with which James takes over Simon’s life has a sweeping flourish. But we’ve seen all this.
Ayoade is more comfortable distracting himself with indulgences; Simon’s Sam Lowry–esque obsession with the TV series The Replicator, a Garth Merenghi-inspired crap science fiction series in which Paddy Considine marvellously deadpans PT Kommander (“You’ll have to hand in your holo badge and blaster”). Ayoade embraces retro-designs somewhere between the 1950s and 1970s, along with early ’80s computer games. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, a constant source of frustration as the guard who wont let Simon into his place of work, also appears as a doctor in one scene. What this means is open to debate. As are the activities of James Fox’s the Colonel (the boss for whom there’s no such thing as special people, only people). Probably very little; these are enticements suggestive of nothing that would substantially alter one’s view of the picture; they are “wouldn’t that be clever” nods, rather than actual clever ones.
Elsewhere the jobs for his pals don’t always quite fit. Chris(topher) Morris is too big for his one scene, although Chris O’Dowd and Tim Key fare better. Perhaps if Ayoade had given into the instinct to pitch towards broad playing, The Double would have worked better. But somehow I doubt it. Nice to see Cathy Moriarty. Strange to see J. Mascis. Parts of the picture are nevertheless very funny, and the occasional line or exchange suggests an Ayoade who is doing himself no favours holding back. James instructing Simon that placing a hand on the small of girl’s back shows one is interested “or could push them down the stairs at any minute”. Then there’s ”Simon, give Rudolf his arm back!”
Shorn of anything aside from the mundane interior turmoil of Simon, one casts about for avenues that might have been explored further. Mainly that comes in the form of Hannah, who exists on the periphery. She spurns Simon but pursues James, as we realise she too is showing two very different sides of her personality; the first picture she has torn up and thrown away shows a dual self-portrait, from behind. She responds most to Simon’s comparison of himself with Pinocchio (that James steals) more than she does his doppelganger’s insensitive but sly advances. Wasikowska is good (she always is, and deserves more than her share of the honours bestowed upon Jennifer Lawrence in the up-and-coming star aren) but she’s perhaps a little too naturalistic for Ayaode’s studiously eccentric trappings. Added to that, if he had made more of the idea of Hannah as a dual double he might have had something extra to run with (anyone focussing on the different movie posters, one with Eisenberg’s face split and the other with Wasikowska likewise, will feel misled), that could have helped made his picture distinctive rather a non-descript retread.
The Double isn’t a bad film. It’s vastly superior to Richard Gere’s The Double, although I can imagine distress on all fronts at taking the wrong delivery. There’s just little to distinguish it beyond its much flaunted split personality premise and claustrophobic, moody sets. Ayoade may see himself in his main character but the film doesn’t feel personal, and he hasn’t pulled any dandily deranged rabbits out of his hat. Instead, he’s completed an exercise in quirk.