United Kingdom. Directed by Richard Ayoade, 2013. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn. 93 minutes.
About half an hour into the film, a long-haired, elderly gent wearing a tuxedo leans into a microphone and starts to croon. “I was born in east Virginia,” he sings, “North Carolina I did roam.” But the singer’s accent makes it clear that, wherever he’s from, it isn’t anywhere near Virginia. (He is, in fact, the Finnish rock star Ilkka Johannes “Danny” Lipsanen, of Danny and the Islanders.) The sequence is The Double in microcosm: it’s a film obsessed with artifice and content, whose words tell one story and its accent another.
Loosely adapted by director/co-writer Richard Ayoade from a Dostoyevsky novella, The Double stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James, a sad sack who lives and works in pretty much the same world that Brazil took place in. He lives across the street from his pretty co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), spying on her with a telescope. One evening, Hannah’s upstairs neighbor commits suicide. Soon afterward, a gentleman named James Simon takes a job with Simon’s employer and moves into the newly-vacated apartment. James, also played by Eisenberg, is Simon’s exact physical double, but is confident and charming while Simon is meek and forgettable. Can Simon stop James from rudely ejecting him from his own life?
It doesn’t take a Media Studies major to work out that much of this story works on a metaphorical level, and I think that’s part of my problem with it. The Double is clever, yes–one expects nothing less of Ayoade, who, although better known as an actor (The IT Crowd), is also a co-creator of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and is part of a clique whose members are responsible for The Mighty Boosh, Snuff Box, and Sightseers. But too often “clever” becomes “too clever for its own good.”
I desperately wanted to engage with the film because, of course, I see a lot of myself in Simon James. I expect much of the audience will share that, and I’m dead certain Ayoade knows it. Yet he keeps us at a constant remove from the story and the characters, through the characters’ sheer unlikeability (even Hannah turns out to be a twit), through the obvious falseness of the world-building, and…
Here I must admit a personal prejudice, something that I just can’t get past. Brazil–a film I have worked very hard not to compare The Double to, and mostly succeeded–largely works for me because I can see a sort of Everyman in Jonathan Pryce’s performance, despite Sam Lowry’s creepier tendencies and mommy issues. Pryce can disappear into the role. Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t disappear into roles; you’re never not aware you’re watching him. (Yes, even in The Social Network, which largely works not by turning Eisenberg into Mark Zuckerberg, but turning Zuckerberg into Eisenberg.)
This especially applies to his performance as James: by barely modulating Simon’s personality and mannerisms, he turns into someone everyone adores, while the audience doesn’t see that much of a difference. The audience is not going to buy Eisenberg (or at least this particular version of Eisenberg) as a charismatic womanizer. And once again, I feel myself drawn to qualify that criticism with “…but that’s probably by design.”
So I do have to conclude by saying that while I didn’t particularly enjoy The Double–it didn’t work for me as entertainment, and it didn’t work for me as a piece of art to engage with–I do admire Richard Ayoade for creating something that made me think and giving me one of the toughest reviews I’ve ever had to write (this piece is almost three weeks overdue). In a world where the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” is starting to look less like fiction and more like a documentary, that’s a victory in and of itself.