Skip to main content

I like to think I’m pretty unique.

The Double
(2013)

(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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

I'm a sort of travelling time expert.

Doctor Who Season 12 – Worst to Best
Season 12 isn’t the best season of Doctor Who by any means, but it’s rightly recognised as one of the most iconic, and it’s easily one of the most watchable. Not so much for its returning roster of monsters – arguably, only one of them is in finest of fettle – as its line-up of TARDIS crew members. Who may be fellow travellers, but they definitely aren’t “mates”. Thank goodness. Its popularity – and the small matters of it being the earliest season held in its entirety in original broadcast form, and being quite short – make it easy to see why it was picked for the first Blu-ray boxset.

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite