Directed by: Richard Ayoade
Premise: Based on the novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A lonely man (Jesse Eisenberg) who performs a nondescript job at an unspecified corporation has his life turned upside down when another man who looks exactly like him but with the opposite personality is hired and begins to take advantage of their identical looks.
What Works: Adapting the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky to the screen is a difficult proposition because the author’s work is so dense and cerebral but writer and director Richard Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine do an impressive job interpreting the material and translating it to the screen. The filmmakers find ways to literalize the ideas of the source text and make them cinematic. The Double has a great look. The sets have a dingy, industrial style and the environments and props feature analog technology. That choice is a smart one because it gives the film a timeless look and the laboriousness and circuitous nature of this technology emphasizes the theme of the story. Movies like The Double, which lampoon hierarchy and complex social systems, are inherently absurd and although The Double is not really a comedy the movie is frequently very funny in dark and bizarre ways, much the same way as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The picture has a lot of gags that capitalize on redundancy and minimize the protagonist against an indecipherably complex system. Aside from its filmmaking craft, The Double succeeds in large part because of the dual performances by Jesse Eisenberg and there is a certain brilliance to casting him in these parts. In most of his roles, Jesse Eisenberg typically plays intelligent characters who are the smartest men in the room but they are held back from greatness by their own social ineptitude. Eisenberg’s primary role in The Double fits that bill. As Simon he is in typical Eisenberg-mode, conveying intelligence, speaking with his characteristically rapid delivery, and slouching through his scenes with shifty posture. Heady characters are not typically endearing to audiences but Eisenberg’s success as an actor has been to combine his cerebral qualities with vulnerability; in fact, the intelligence of Eisenberg’s characters is as much an asset as it is a weakness and that creates empathy with the audience. This is where the stroke of genius in casting Eisenberg is revealed. The shy Simon, who possesses the qualities that typically work for Eisenberg as an actor, is victimized by James, also played by Eisenberg, but with confidence taking the place of social ineptitude. Put simply, The Double presents Jesse Eisenberg being outsmarted by Jesse Eisenberg and that makes for very compelling viewing.
What Doesn’t: The premise of The Double is a novel one; this isn’t intended to be taken literally. For that reason, the appeal of The Double is likely to be limited in much the same way that the appeal of Dostoyevsky’s literature is also limited. However, even given the cult appeal of this film, The Double does degrade over the course of its running time because the filmmakers lose their grip on the narrative. The first half of the picture is extremely tight and focused but as James takes over Peter’s life the emphasis shifts from Peter’s role in the company and toward their competition over a female coworker (Mia Wasikowska). The love triangle is not as compelling as the workplace drama and the conclusions of these scenes don’t pay off as well.
Bottom Line: Although its second half isn’t as strong, The Double is a very good picture. Even if it isn’t quite at the level of Brazil or Eraserhead, the moviemakers deal with complex ideas and absurd situations with a great deal of skill while retaining the human qualities that a lot of similar films lack. The movie might not be to every viewer’s taste but The Double could very well become a cult classic.
Episode: #491 (May 18, 2014)