Richard Ayoade’s The Double plays like a haunting amalgamation of Brazil (1985), Fight Club (1999) and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004) in that it blurs the line between reality and fantasy in ways that inspire nightmares. It’s an easy movie to follow and yet it unfolds with complexity. It sparks questions in our minds and doesn’t concern itself with answering them. Right to the very end, we are not entirely sure what has happened. It contains a bravado performance by Jesse Eisenberg, who essentially plays two different roles masked by one character. It’s gripping, handsome and smart, but it doesn’t quite know what it wants to say about its hero. If it did, The Double could have been some kind of awesome.
Eisenberg plays Simon James, a relatively good looking young man who works at a data processing firm. One day he finds that his employee pass is no longer valid, and his colleagues take less and less notice of him. It’s as if his very existence is fading away. Every day he makes the self-deprecating descent to the copy room, usually with a pointless document in hand, to chat up the cute copy girl, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who happens to live in the apartment block across his own. When no one’s looking, he sifts through Hannah’s trash, piecing together fragments of her life that she no longer wants. He tries ever so hard to get to know her, but he’s useless at romantic conversation. She becomes another object that is fading away.
Simon comes naturally to Eisenberg — the shy, reclusive, awkward adolescent who peers at people from a distance with confidence then buckles under the pressure of face-to-face interactions. He is comparable to another of Eisenberg’s roles, Columbus from Zombieland (2009). In that movie, too, he knew not how to approach women. Emma Stone played the only desirable female. He was bound to get her in the end. In The Double, the only desirable female is played by Wasikowska. We don’t really know if he gets her this time. There’s a lot in his way.
Simon’s fragile life is suddenly interrupted by James Simon (also Eisenberg), a man who is like Simon in every physical way but provides his complete personality antithesis. He is suave, emotionally agile, he has a way with the ladies. He knows how to work the system and talk up the boss (Wallace Shawn), who invariably ends up calling Simon Stanley. James is everything Simon wishes he was, the physical projection of liberation shared also by Tyler Durden.
The relationship between Simon and James is always fun to watch, partly because the dialogue and delivery is so sharp, partly because we enjoy the seamless computer graphics that blend two Jesse Eisenbergs into the same shot. You’ve seen this done before. It’s been done as early as the ’20s with double exposure. Most recently, though, The Social Network (2010) comes to mind, where computers duplicated actor Armie Hammer to provide the movie with its necessary twin brothers. The process was so perfect I thought the casting department hired actual twins (I hadn’t known of Hammer back then). The effect is similar here, and the result is so successful that Eisenberg embodies two separate men in the physical space of one.
The thing that troubles me, however, is the reason for James in the story. Is he only there to account for the recruitment of visual effects artists? What is Ayoade’s message? Individualism? Sexual liberation? Simon says at the end that he is not only special; he is unique. Indeed he is. Few people have had the privilege to see the manifestation of their desired selves. But what has Simon learnt from all this?
Little details like this gnaw at me, and maybe that’s the underlying charm of The Double: The little details. In a world so topsy-turvy, it shouldn’t be confusing that Simon and James are treated as two completely different people despite looking identical. But it is. Surely the people around them can see that they are the same! Simon is the only one who thinks something strange is afoot. Even Hannah, who has a keen eye for lies and betrayal, would rather bed James than Simon. Is this a plot hole? Definitely not. It’s a conscious decision. But a decision to do what? Baffle us? Maybe. I don’t know. Something tells me I don’t need to know. The Double is still a remarkably enjoyable film.
Best Moment | Simon freaking out in the office lounge, flailing a prosthetic arm around.
Worst Moment | The morally contrived ending.