THE DOUBLE Review: Two Hearts Beat As One
A little while ago, I was engaged in a small, friendly debate on Twitter about George Clooney and his portrayal of Mission Commander Matt Kowalski in 2013’s Gravity. My fellow Tweeter had directed a general comment towards anyone who thinks the Kowalski character is too much like other Clooney characters – cocky, charming, witty, etc. The person said that that’s just how astronauts are, and if anyone has that Clooney feeling about them, then that is “on them”; that is to say that if viewers bring to a Clooney movie predisposed viewpoints about Clooney, and if his character simply happens to be like that, that’s … well, that’s on the viewers.
I disagreed and countered with an argument that included something akin to typecasting – that there are certain actors who are closely associated with certain character types based on various, similarly-typed roles. For example, The Will Ferrell Character is the lovable village idiot (2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy; 2006’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby); The Vince Vaughn Character is the dim but charming slick-talker (Delivery Man and The Internship, both from 2013); and so on.
We never came to an agreement (as is so often the case on Twitter), but watching The Double made me think about that exchange, because the film’s star is, I think, headed towards becoming The Jesse Eisenberg character: the super-smug intellectual snob who speaks as fast as he thinks and who thinks much faster than you do (2010’s The Social Network and 2013’s Now You See Me).
Only this time, there are two of him.
Eisenberg stars as Simon James, a meek, longtime Corporate America cubicle-dweller who is having a bad day. He withers during a confrontation on the train to work, he loses his brief case, his access badge fails (bringing heat from the security guard), and his boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), essentially ignores any ideas he has on ways to improve how data is reported at work. He is Dilbert in three dimensions. The only thing that brightens this dreary work day (and subsequent others like it) is his secret crush, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who works in the copy room. But as he makes strides towards becoming more than just coworkers with Hannah, a new hire arrives and with him comes trouble.
Enter James Simon (no, really … and yes, also Eisenberg), the firm’s newest employee and an absolute dazzler. Security lets him skate by without a pass (even allowing him to vouch for Simon), Papadopoulos adores him, and Hannah is instantly smitten with him. This puts Simon in a position he’s not comfortable with: confrontation. Simon, who has struggled simply to be noticed, is now being lost entirely. And as all of the bad things happen to him and all of the good things happens to James, no one seems to notice that the two men are identical in every aspect of their being – right down to their clothes.
With inspiration from Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s novella of the same title, co-writer/director Richard Ayoade uses The Double to look at how one man’s frail psyche tries to break free in an oppressive corporate environment. The trick to it, though, is to understand that the doppelgängers are not two people who look alike, but instead two versions of the same person living something of a shared, yet parallel, existence.
Simon is who he truly is – the one to whom we are first introduced: that cubicle farmer grinding out a meager existence who can’t get anywhere because no one is paying attention to him. He has an indifferent boss and a disinterested love interest, and even the security guard, whose job surely requires him to be observant, forgets who Simon is almost immediately after Simon checks in. He is not given responsibilities but instead given chores, and he is so lowly regarded that he is removed from a company party because he does not have his badge.
James is who Simon thinks he wants to be. While he may also be a cubicle farmer, James is the guy in the office who is loved for everything everybody thinks he does, even though he doesn’t really do anything himself. He is the center of attention on his first day at work, the pride of the boss, the new favorite of the company’s figurehead (The Colonel, played by James Fox), and the romantic interest of Hannah (as well as two other ladies of wildly disparate ages). He doesn’t even get in trouble committing infractions that would otherwise nail Simon.
They are the Professor Julius Kelp and Buddy Love for the office set, only working in tandem, not in substitution. People see them together and people see them apart. For all outward appearances they are two unique, independent beings. It’s as if Simon birthed James from his psyche. It’s a considerable mind-twister.
But there is also a lesson to be learned. Simon gets the chance – the privilege, really – to see what he would need to become to get the things he wants and he doesn’t like it. Move over, Buddy Love; make a little room for George Bailey.
And oh, if I could only discuss the ending without spoiling it. I’ll give you hint – move over, George Bailey, the Corsican Brothers are in town.
The film’s setting adds considerably to the mystique of the goings-on. These are not modern-day high-rise denizens; they work in what looks like a sweatshop of cubicles. The overall mood is very ’40s noir, but with household technology that looks like it’s from the ’70s and a computer system that smacks of the ’80s. The broad, undefined era when this takes place prevents the film from feeling dated, yet keeps it dated enough that modern technology could make Simon’s life easier. (I resist the urge to call it “dystopia” because that suggests a bleak future; this doesn’t take place in the future and the only bleak thing here is Simon’s lot in life.)
Eisenberg is strong in the both roles, but he shines brighter when playing the meek Simon because it’s against type. When he plays James, he’s “The Jesse Eisenberg Character,” complete with angles backing up angles.
The rest of the cast is perfectly fine although mostly unchallenged, and Erik Wilson‘s cinematography is gorgeous. The film also features a spectacular line that is spoken as a slogan in a commercial for the the company Simon and James work for: “The Colonel knows there’s no such thing as special people – just people.” That’s right … ultimately, no one is special. Anyone who has spent any time in Corporate America knows how true that statement can sometimes be.
Ayoade’s story is strong, but not perfect. Simon’s mother (Phyllis Somerville) is that stereotypically shrill mother who is only happy when she is unhappy, and she constantly makes it known that her son is a disappointment to her. She’s a little too much for the film. I can make a similar case for the waitress (Cathy Moriarty) at the diner Simon visits every day. Her lack of respect for him is almost offensive. (Her treatment of him also begs the question, “Since Simon can’t change his mother at all or his employer very easily, why would he frequent an eating establishment – something he can change – where the waitress abuses him daily?”) But these points a re small.
The Double is as much science fiction as it is drama or thriller, and it turned out to be one of those films that I needed to let marinate before it finally came together. It was very much worth letting it work its way through my mind.