Film Review: The Double

Director: Richard Ayoade
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska


by Ross McIndoe

‘Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.’ Richard Ayoade’s The Double might be as indebted to Chaplin’s famous film philosophy as to its Russian source material. It gets away with smiling wryly at the utter hopelessness of the lives it puts on show by constantly pushing just far enough into absurdity, placing just enough distance between itself and reality, to make its dreadful tale of alienation and insignificance a surreal comedy rather than a nihilistic nightmare. What we see is so cartoonishly miserable that pathos becomes bathos, and we can grin our way through Ayoade’s tightly-constructed rendition of Dostoevsky’s famed novella.

The Double depicts a world apparently without daylight, as Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) and his co-workers shuffle daily down into their grimy, underlit underground workplace to grind away the hours in arduous calculation and maddening bureaucracy; re-surfacing long after the sun has set to return to barren cupboard-like apartments or dingy, run-down diners and kill the remaining time before the routine is rewound and can begin again anew, the same in every detail. A fully mechanised society where each individual is just another cog in the big machine leaves little room for the cripplingly shy Simon, who spends his days apologising to glaring faces, bumbling through simple situations and staring wistfully after a girl he can’t summon the courage to talk to. One fateful day, the humdrum monotony of his life is irreversibly shattered by the ineffable appearance of his perfect doppelganger: James Simon. The very bleakest type of hilarity ensues.

The chance to double up as a character and their lookalike offers huge potential for real bravura: see Nicolas Cage’s turn in Adaptation as a pair of identical twins which is so impressive, it remains a sure-fire silencer for Cage detractors even now, this many Ghost Rider films in. Calling on his talents as a physical actor, Eisenberg capitalises on the role of Simon/James by animating them both from the ground up with such completely different and fully-realised personas that they remain totally distinct at all times: you can take a still from almost any point in the film and know immediately which Simon you’re seeing.

imageWatching The Double, even those with no knowledge of the source could material guess that it stems from a short story or novella: it’s bare of anything even remotely superfluous, pared down to the principle players and contained almost exclusively within a couple of shadowy interiors. This minimalist approach gives it a certain confidence: it commits to its style and is completely itself in every frame. Like a more macabre Wes Anderson, Ayoade crafts a miniature world in fine detail, sculpting every little bit of every little scene to exact specifications. However, it does also leave the end product feeling just a little slight: to retain its cynical humour, it remains aloof from its subject matter to the point where we are invited to stand back from it and smirk, rather than really engaging.

An impressive exercise in style headed by a show-stealing central performance from Eisenberg, The Double makes for a highly personalised and technically proficient re-imagining of Dostoevsky’s tale.document.currentScript.parentNode.insertBefore(s, document.currentScript);