Friday, May 16, 2014

Mirror Image: THE DOUBLE

Richard Ayoade’s The Double is a movie that sounds intriguing. It’s about a man who discovers his new co-worker looks exactly like him. How interesting! It’s also a movie that looks great. Pass by it on cable and you just might linger, wondering what enjoyable goings-on take place inside the fanciful production design, dramatically lit and precisely shot. It is unfortunate, then, that the movie never develops much of interest within the confines of its compelling hook and fine design. It’s thin and empty, not so much inhabiting its looks and ideas as borrowing them. Like Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, which earlier this year doubled Jake Gyllenhaal to little interest, Ayoade, adapting a Dostoevsky story, has a terrific concept, a game cast, an interesting look, and nowhere to go.

The man at the center of the double dilemma is timid office drone Simon (Jesse Eisenberg). He does good work, but the world seems to crushingly ignore him, ensnaring him in bureaucratic red-tape mazes at best, skipping over him entirely at worst. The waitress at his favorite restaurant always brings him the wrong order. He nurses a crush on his neighbor and co-worker (Mia Wasikowska), but never acts upon it. He has great ideas to improve his office’s efficiency, but the boss (Wallace Shawn) brushes him aside, telling him to babysit his intern (Yasmin Page), a surly teenager who also happens to be his daughter. The world is a lonely, gloomy place for Simon.

In the peculiar world of the film, it always seems to be night. The characters are pale, their faces impassive, their words strung along into sentences of matter-of-fact, by-the-book knots. It’s a Terry Gilliam/Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Tim Burton kind of world with production designer David Crank providing flickering lights, oversized ducts and pipes, steaming vents, rusty mechanical contraptions, and spotty retro-futurist structures covered in elaborate alternative universe tech and bric-a-brac. The weight of all this busyness keeps Simon crushed down in the imagery, stark lighting highlighting his alienation from the busy people droning along through apparently much happier lives around him.

Enter James, a new co-worker the others in the office immediately take a liking to. He’s everything Simon isn’t: successful and confident to the point of arrogance. He also looks exactly like Simon, a funny coincidence and something no one else seems to notice or care about. The two men eventually get to know each other and even help each other out by switching places at crucial moments. But it’s all very strange and destabilizing for James, who is intimidated by his double. At one point he explains his insecurities, saying he “sees the man he wants to be, but can’t get there.” His wish is made real in the form of his double, allowing him to see the advantages and disadvantages of being a more forceful individual. On the one hand, he could go after what he wants. On the other hand, what if what he wants is wanted by his double as well? Ah, there’s the problem.

And so it’s double versus double or something like that as the story slowly drains down to its glum conclusions. Along the way, Ayoade exercises good formal control over the technical aspects of the picture, from the dim, whimsical production design to the precise blocking involved in doubling Eisenberg in many a shot, allowing him to interact with himself in tricky ways. Eisenberg is a performer good at suggesting jumpy neuroses, anxious intelligence, and tangled interior debates. No wonder he makes such a good scene partner for himself, playing essentially two halves of a whole character, a man’s inner emotional conflict made literal. Sometimes I got confused, not quite able to pin down which man was which, but he locates an emotional consistency that’s a solid anchor.

The character design is as sturdy and inscrutable as the dialogue is designed to be deadpan, the sets strikingly artificial, the plot cold and lost in its own thoughts. It’s a forced whimsy, happy to be odd and particular without much in the way of insight or inviting further consideration. There’s simply nothing pulling along the assemblage of influences and design choices into any sort of involving larger picture. There’s no reason to invest or care. Ayoade is a director of potential. His TV work, like cult favorite Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, is strong, but his cinematic efforts lag behind. This is his second film, after the coming-of-age Submarine, a similarly stylishly empty work of great control, thin substance, and borrowed imagination. I look forward to the day when he finds better material to match his talents. 

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