Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Wallace Shawn, Mia Wasikowska
Director: Richard Ayoade
Being everybody’s darling must be a strain. Put yourself in Richard Ayoade’s shoes for a moment – beloved for his clowning around on The IT Crowd, acclaimed for his heart-warming and funny debut feature Submarine. It can’t be easy, keeping up the good vibes. Maybe that’s why his much-discussed follow-up, The Double, sees him going the other way – wallowing in a fantasy of being unpopular, and channelling directors who don’t share the cosy rapport with the audience that comes to him so easily
Hence the government department where his protagonist, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) toils in some oppressive alternate reality is pure Terry Gilliam. It’s not just that the grey, crumbling totalitarian architecture and clunky, temperamental retro tech are similar to those in Brazil. Some of the shots amount to straight borrowings – for example, the sequence with Simon’s boss, Mr Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn) striding down the hall while Simon scurries in his wake immediately evokes memories of Ian Richardson’s quick-stepping Mr Warrenn. And when he’s at home, in his flat on a bleak housing estate, Simon seems to morph into the infatuated, suicidal boy at the centre of Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love, peering wistfully through his telescope at the melancholy girl across the way.
Avi Korine and Richard Ayoade’s script is supposedly based on the novel by Dostoevsky (here’s an irony – his second, and less successful than his first). A more likely inspiration, though, would seem to be Harlan Ellison’s Shatterday as Simon’s mirror image, the bright and outward-going James Simon, appears on the scene, is an instant success with all his colleagues and begins systematically taking over his life. Is Ayoade telling us how he feels about his own public persona? Maybe. The puzzle, though, is why Simon is as he is. You assume at first that it’s do with living in a tin-pot dictatorship (there’s a whiff of Greece under the colonels in the 1960s) where speaking out can get you into trouble, but no one else in the film seems to have a problem expressing themselves. Moreover, Eisenberg’s stricken, cowering performance points to a deeper hurt. Eisenberg has to be the most nakedly intellectual, most physically dainty leading man since ever, and he has never looked more shrunken and unworldly, more sickly elfin, than here. His luminously sad, achingly melancholy turn dumps a whole load of raw pain into the movie, pain that is never adequately explored or accounted for.
The Double is definitely not a crowd-pleaser then, but it’s clearly the work of people of immense talent. Even when he’s having an identity crisis, Ayoade is a director to watch. There’s a discipline and tautness to his rhythms, and you can see his huge skill as time and again poor Simon is caught in elaborately contrived sight gags which suggest, much more than the Gilliamesque trimmings, the relentlessly turning cogs and wheels of a cruel universe.
The DVD comes with deleted and extended scenes and a brief (13 minutes) but very informative featurette. In this, we learn that the project originated with the American co-writer Avi Korine; from what he says, it would appear that he originally intended the film to be set in more of a sleek, corporate world and it was Ayoade who Gilliamed it. Other interesting factoids that emerge: the whole thing was shot on a semi-abandoned business estate in Wokingham, and there’s no natural light in the film because they had to use artificial light for the technically demanding doubling FX. There’s also the fascinating sight of Eisenberg talking exactly like one of his own characters.