2016 Film Essays

We Failed This Film: Richard Ayoade’s ‘The Double’

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We Failed This Film is a series about underrated films that simply didn’t receive the love they deserved upon initial release. For the 16th entry, we’re having an identity crisis with Richard Ayoade’s The Double.

How We Failed It

Making the transition from actor to director can be a daunting task, but it’s one that Richard Ayoade has accomplished. After making us laugh for years on The IT Crowd and directing music videos for Arctic Monkeys and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ayoade finally debuted his first feature film in 2010 with the charming, funny and thoughtful Submarine. While many critics unfairly wrote it off as a cheap imitation of Wes Anderson, Ayoade had still carved out enough of a voice for himself. He would expand on that voice with 2014’s The Double.

Loosely adapted by Ayoade and Avi Korine from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a timid, shy and unendingly unlucky man who works for a nameless bureaucratic corporation. He pines for Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a copy girl that works in a different department, but he lacks the courage to speak to her. All of the sudden, James Simon (also Eisenberg) — a man who looks, sounds and acts just like Simon — starts working at the company. What’s curious is that nobody but Simon seems to notice or at least be intrigued by the similarity between the two. The pair begin as cautious friends, as James tries to help Simon woo Hannah, but James begins to siphon every ounce of Simon’s life from him and takes over every aspect of his identity.

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Analyzing the box office for this film is tricky, as there is no listing for the budget on any websites where you would expect to find one. The Double played in 16 theaters for 15 weeks, thereby only making a small $200,000 in theaters. Normally that’s bad news, and I guess it still is, but it’s highly likely that the film made its money back through ancillary markets like VOD rentals and digital sales.

The Double was never built to play to a large audience but to an independent arthouse crowd. The failure here doesn’t fall on the distributor, Magnolia Pictures, as they checked off all the boxes to get this film out to the right audience. The business model for distributors like Magnolia focuses more on VOD sales than theatrical receipts, but unfortunately, VOD results are rarely released. It’s almost as if they aren’t regarded as actual money, perhaps conveying the idea that making independent VOD sales public information would threaten the status quo of big studios trying to keep customers in the theater. As a matter of fact, I originally saw The Double on VOD since it wasn’t playing anywhere near me. So without knowing the budget, nor the VOD sales for the film, it’s difficult to diagnose a financial failure, but what we can gather from this data is that not a lot of people saw the film.

Ayoade’s production also came out around the same time as Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, a film that also dealt with the idea of a doppelganger. Curiously enough, the market saturation didn’t cancel either one out. For one thing, neither was playing to any crowd larger than the arthouse scene, and both are distinctive enough that each  benefited from the discussion to be had in discovering how the films speak to each other on identity.

So, while the box office was never going to be dynamite thanks to limited theatrical resources, it fell upon the critics to spread the word about Ayoade’s wonderful film. The Double garnered generally favorable receptions from critics. Glenn Kenny wrote “Despite its glum themes, the movie chugs along at a nice pace, and the script, by director Richard Ayoade and Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother!) is filled with mordant and often colloquially vulgar comedy, which throws the already off-kilter proceedings into interesting relief. Ayoade, a comedic sensation in his native Britain, here applies his obvious intelligence and film-style-absorbing qualities to a better purpose than he did in his directorial feature debut, 2010’s teen-angst chronicle Submarine, which I described at the time as ‘forced-eclectic.’ I suppose in theory there isn’t a whole lot of difference between ‘forced-eclectic’ and ‘self-conscious art film,’ only here Ayoade has found a way to make it work, and in the end, that’s all that counts.”

Kyle Turner wrote favorably of the film, nailing Eisenberg’s terrific performance by writing “In a strange way, it does not seem that it was hard for Eisenberg to play both roles. That sounds mean, perhaps, but I say it as a compliment: Eisenberg is able to jump between both distinctive characters so effortlessly, one imagines that he nearly did it in his sleep. It is also the fact that both Simon James and James Simon are heightened, exaggerated versions of characters that he has portrayed before: Simon is nearly incapacitated by his awkwardness and anxiety whereas James is aggressively confident to an asshole-ish extent. Simon seems to come out of Adventureland and The Squid and the Whale, while James seems to be partially derived from, most obviously, The Social Network. If you have ever seen Eisenberg in interviews, one can see that neither of these personas in their more reigned in form are great stretches from Eisenberg’s personality. The attractively pouty façade with the sharp cheekbones seems to manifest both. So, Eisenberg gets typecast primarily as “the awkward one.” But, the difference between Eisenberg and, say, Michael Cera is that Eisenberg uses this uncomfortable introverted quality to create a caricature of himself for The Double, so hyperbolic that Simon James becomes separate and external from Jesse Eisenberg, the Actor. There is an incredible skill here in the ability to channel both “versions” of a persona that is, since his douche role as Mark Zuckerberg, kind of iconic. That iconography notwithstanding, the James character becomes borderline sadistic, a shade of grey that Zuckerberg never becomes.”

However, nearly every review couldn’t help but make the knee-jerk comparison to the inspirations that Ayoade had from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The inspirations are clearly there, but in the writing, they always seemed to have an undercurrent attack on Ayoade’s authenticity. Tasha Robinson wrote a wonderful rebuttal to this knee-jerk reaction titled “The similarities between The Double and Brazil run broad and deep – and that’s okay” and noted that “It never hurts to consider a film’s influences; that’s one of the most useful things critics can do, in terms of tracking movement and concepts back to their sources, and helping further the audience’s understanding of where individual films come from. For all his reluctance over the Brazil comparison, Ayoade has acknowledged other inspirations, including The Wrong Man and Le Samourai. Critics meanwhile, have noted plot points or tonal details from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, David Fincher’s Fight Club, and from other filmmakers, from David Lynch to Aki Kaurismäki. And none of these empties the film of value, as long as it has its own sense of creativity, energy, and worth.”

Yet even despite the general good will and thoughtful discussion surrounding The Double, it quickly became forgotten by the year’s end. It’s a real shame, as Ayoade is more worthy of larger recognition than any quick comparisons to films that a freshman in film school could make.

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Why It’s Great

Right from the opening frame, The Double presents itself as an intensely focused work of cinema where every visual, frame and bit of sound design is meant to evoke and dissect isolation and identity. Simon James sits on a train by himself, one that is traveling underground and slicing up the light. It hits his face in sharp fragments, breaking up the consistency of his figure. This insinuates a subtle fracture of identity. To add to this insinuation of Simon’s identity, a man interrupts the frame and insists Simon is sitting in his spot. The train cart is empty, but the meek Simon obliges and moves to a different empty seat. He then looks at a mirror on the cart with two frames that augment his reflection. One of them makes him appear small, the other makes him appear large. One image is dominating the other, a brilliant foreshadowing of James Simon’s arrival.

One shot has Simon having a phone conversation with his demeaning mom. We only see Simon through a small window in the phone booth, with the camera dollying back to make him appear smaller. It’s a simple but quietly effective use of framing and technique. The whole film is ripe with small and clever instances of camerawork from Ayoade and cinematographer Erik Wilson, insinuating loneliness and loss of identity. Several images have Simon’s face obscured by windows, his body standing behind bars of some sort, and his surroundings seeming to dwarf his physical frame.

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The use of coloring to depict mood and character is also effective. Consider when Hannah leaves a note for Simon and also leaves a quarter to play a song for her. Simon plays a cheery tune, and the lighting around him goes from bleak and dim to a warm orange and red. Hope has been introduced to him. He dances down a hallway to the ball, the lighting switching to various bright colors shining through in time to the beat to heighten his emotion.

Ayoade and Wilson adopt a shooting style that has the setup and payoff of a silent comedy. The humor comes from the awkward interactions that Simon can never seem to live up to, and the obscure angles and rapid pans from Wilson not only heighten the world he lives in, but also the inherent comedy in moments where he looks shameful. Consider when he’s caught going through Hannah’s trash and calmly told that he shouldn’t be doing that. Simon apologizes timidly (like he so often does), the camera unwaveringly fixated on capturing his full figure of shame.

Every curious aspect of this film feels distinctive and authentic to the heightened world that Ayoade presents. The lighting is rooted in German expressionism; the harsh shadows and creeping details give an air of almost magical and dooming surreality. There’s not a single bit of daylight in The Double. All interior scenes are dimly lit, and any time Simon goes outside, it is at the blackest of night with industrial steam pouring out from some unknown origin. Adding to the bleakness, a police suicide patrol exists, suggesting this sort of thing happens enough that an entire team is needed.

Simon exists in a Kafkaesque nightmare. He’s lost his employee card and has to reapply for a temporary replacement each morning (even though he’s worked there for seven years). Because of this bureaucracy shortcoming, he can’t even go to the mandatory Colonel’s Ball. At a certain point, Simon gets caught in such a bureaucratic spiral to where he doesn’t exist in the company’s system anymore — he needs a new card to get back in to the system but can’t because he’s not in the system. His insignificance is endless. As the exalted CEO of the nameless corporation, The Colonel stands as a bonkers sort of Big Brother, a god-type only seen on screen and never in person. To meet the Colonel is to meet God. Nearly every nook and cranny of each setting adds to this dystopia, constructing an unforgettable and authentic hyper-reality.

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A masterful bit of construction, the sound design of The Double relates man to machine in this industrial dystopia where humans are considered the greatest commodity. The noises of workers moving boxes onto a train cart sound like squeaky, greasy pistons. Man is industrialized in this world. The sounds of typewriters and old-school computing bleeps and bloops morph together into a sort of score for the film. The sounds of shoes tapping across empty corridors double as a signal for tension. Andrew Hewitt’s score is sparsely used but immensely effective, utilizing pulsating strings to heighten Simon’s identity crisis.

This is without a doubt the greatest work of Jesse Eisenberg’s career. The role came in the midst of the actor graduating from the “young befuddled man” archetype to proving he could play different types of characters. Another highlight from this period came from his transformative and unsettling work in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves. Eisenberg does play the “young befuddled man” type in The Double, but he finds new depths of tragedy and emotion through Simon James. When he reads lines like “You could push your hand straight through me if you wanted to. I’m like Pinocchio. I’m a wooden boy. Not a real boy. And it kills me,” he does so with such an authentic sense of loneliness and social suffocation.

On the other hand, you have his performance as James. He’s crassly charismatic, showcasing a calculative and indifferent side to Eisenberg never seen before. Where Simon is timid and polite, James is assertive and confident. Where Simon walks with a clenched hunch, James walks with an undeniable ease and swagger. Where Simon struggles to connect, James can insert himself into any conversation. People don’t notice Simon, but they will go out of their way to please James. The only way Simon gets into the office building without the temporary pass is when James tells the doorman that Simon is with him, to which the doorman is happy to let him through. Whenever Simon operates the elevator, it doesn’t work. With James, it works without a hitch. At certain times, you lose track of who is who, and it’s something that Ayoade doesn’t have to go out of his way to do. It happens organically through Eisenberg’s performance, as the commonalities between the two bleed over into each character, a high-wire juggling act that Eisenberg expertly walks.

The Double is the blackest of comedies. At each opportunity, the film kicks Simon down to contrast James’ talent, both comedically and tragically. Considering the way Eisenberg uses simple posturing to communicate emotion, he could have been one of our great silent comedians a century ago. He adopts a similar “Stoneface” to Buster Keaton, letting misfortune wash over him with simplicity, accepting that this is simply how it must be.

Mia Wasikowska appears in a dreamlike state to Simon, emerging in slow motion through a window on the train. Once Simon begins interacting with Hannah, she shatters the dream image he constructed for her, reminding him (and ourselves) that she is a human with her own problems.

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There are numerous comedic appearances from the rest of the cast. Wallace Shawn plays the tightly-wound manager, and Noah Taylor emits a passive and laid back vibe as Harris, the closest thing to a friend that Simon has. Chris O’Dowd and Sally Hawkins get quick comedic scenes as a nurse and secretary, respectively, who are indifferent to Simon’s problems. Yasmin Paige is enjoyable as an apathetic, rebellious teen who takes joy in ridiculing Simon at any chance. Paddy Considine stars in a ridiculous space opera TV show that Simon enjoys, and one that I would personally love to watch numerous season of as well.

The ending to The Double is best experienced cold, as it’s ambiguous and loaded with many opportunities for discussions that I’d be happy to have if you run into me on the street. One thing that deserves to be recounted, though, is how Ayoade and Wilson stage a sort of rebirth and reclamation of Simon James’ life. There’s a great shot of him rising out of a grave; a realization of how to reclaim his life, a rebirth of his identity. The filmmakers cut to a different angle to reveal that Simon is just laying beside the grave pile, however the initial framing serves the purpose: the cost of getting his life back will be high.

It’s been a quiet two years for Ayoade since the release of The Double, and he’s earned whatever break he deems necessary after creating such a masterwork. Let’s just hope he rises back out of that grave soon — reborn — because despite his detractors, Ayoade is no imitation. He’s an authentic, brilliant voice in cinema… one we need more of.

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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