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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014

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Jesse Eisenberg and Jesse Eisenberg star in Richard Ayoade's "The Double."
Jesse Eisenberg and Jesse Eisenberg star in Richard Ayoade's "The Double."

"The Double" is an enthralling oddball entity

Let me get this out of the way: You won’t see a film that looks or feels anything like "The Double," one of the many doppelgänger films that have been released so far this year alongside Denis Villeneuve’s "Enemy" and Disney’s "Muppets Most Wanted."

This is particularly an offbeat, gloomy tale that is told with curiosity, playfulness and quite a bit of intelligence. Richard Ayoade, a British comic actor turned filmmaker who went from appearing in the show "The IT Crowd" to directing the Wes Anderson-esque coming-of-age comedy "Submarine," adapts Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella of the same name to tell the tale of a timid loner who experiences an existential crisis of sorts.

In a dark Soviet-like deserted dystopian urban wasteland, the diffident Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) lives in the shadows wherever he is, almost like a ghost. And, much like a ghost, he’s seemingly invisible moving about. The doorman at his office never recognizes him, insisting that all visitors must sign the book. Later in the film, a personnel manager even takes his identity card, insisting that there is no record of his ever having existed.

He works as an office clerk where none of his much older co-workers recognize him or know his name, despite the fact that he’s worked there for seven years. The company itself looks appears to be a retro-looking data processing service, where workers sit in aligned cubicles and use giant, boxy computer operating systems.

The tasks asked of Simon and his co-workers are vague, but it’s clear that there’s hardly any movement for upward mobility. He thinks he may have the chance to leave a lasting impact on how the company operates if only he can meet face-to-face with The Colonel (James Fox), a figure who’s idolized in the office as if he’s some sort of pop celebrity.

When he’s not in the office, he’s sitting inside of his unimaginative apartment where he peeks through his telescope to spy on his mysterious and very pretty co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) from across the courtyard. As his self-esteem is challenged, he finds it particularly difficult to offer a welcoming smile or even utter a "hello" whenever he comes into contact with her. To Simon, she’s unobtainable.

He’s slowly fading away until he strangely encounters his own doppelgänger who calls himself James Simon. He looks exactly like Simon, wearing the same oversized suit, but his personality is completely different. What Simon lacks, James has. His confidence sticks out like a sore thumb, and he’s a real ladies’ man, moving in on Hannah while pretending to help Simon to get acquainted. Slowly but surely, James drives Simon into madness as no one recognizes the resemblance, thus making Simon’s attempt to be recognized to go haywire.

Jesse Eisenberg – who you may know best from his Oscar-nominated performance as the tyrant Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network" – gives not only one, but two very different performances.

Like the film itself, his performance as Simon is strange, appropriately fitting for the character. On the flip of a switch, he brings restlessness to the role of James, who is the polar opposite of Simon in terms of behavior, but obviously not in looks. With an abundance of talent, Eisenberg gives them both subtle differences in their swagger and their demeanor, and makes it impossible to lose track on who’s who.

His conversations with himself are always fascinating, and his run-ins with Hannah display obvious discomfort. It’s my hope that someday, when people write or talk about Eisenberg, they bring up his performances in "The Double" alongside his work in "The Social Network." One earned him awards buzz and numerous nominations, and the other that’s just as deserving, if not more so.

Mia Wasikowska ("Alice in Wonderland," "Stoker") is also great as Hannah, one who is strange in her own way, but not nearly in the same way and especially not as timid as Simon. 

The film perfectly fits the bill as an oddball entity that hinges on anti-naturalism because of not only the story, but also the setting and the performances. It has a very appealingly surreal quality that makes the dystopian setting appear as a dark, nightmarish landscape, but still unique and utterly fascinating.

From the mechanical and classical score to Erik Wilson’s retro-noir cinematography to the distinctive production design, Ayoade has constructed a film that recalls inspiration from Franz Kafka, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and a bit of Charlie Kaufman. It’s obvious that these filmmakers and authors have fed Ayoade’s imagination. I wouldn’t call him a thief, though, as he has an original mind and approach to his filmmaking. I’ll even go as far to state that Ayoade has enormous potential to have the status as an auteur, whose filmic style will be recognized rather than forgotten.

While Dostoyevsky’s tale is often interpreted as a study of mental illness and schizophrenia, "The Double" is more of a looser adaptation but nonetheless contains the same themes. We’re expected to suspect that James may be a figment of Simon’s clouded psychosis, but Ayoade refuses to offer any clear-cut answers, forcing the viewer to draw their own conclusions. After having seen the film, I can’t say whether James is a figment of Simon’s psychosis, or if he’s actually a real person. As far as I know, Ayoade may have thrown in a curveball to suggest that the reality is not far from skewed between the two possibilities.

With the themes of mental illness and identity loss, it’s clear that "The Double" was bleaker than expected. Despite the bleakness, however, there are moments of humor that are scattered throughout. The bleakness itself could make one interpret the film as a story of madness, but with the implemented humor and added humanism, it could also be interpreted as a story of a loner trying to find his place in society.

Much like the humor in Ayoade’s "Submarine," the humor is often subtle, but it’s also clever and sharp. Following a suicide at the apartment complex where he lives, investigators question Simon. They ask him if he’s thinking about killing himself. When he answers no, one of them says to the other, "Put him down as a maybe."

It’s particularly difficult to classify "The Double" as a comedy or a drama, however. It has elements of both of these genres (heck, I’d even throw in a hint of sci-fi in there for good measure). The film is so utterly unique that it doesn’t belong in any genre, which will undoubtedly make it very difficult for video store clerks to find a spot for it on a categorized shelf.

Much like Simon, the film itself doesn’t have an identity. The lack of belonging in a category isn’t a flaw by any means, however, because the mix of the different elements working well in unison is what makes it work as a whole. 

"The Double" is currently available on iTunes, VOD (check your cable provider), and Amazon. 

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