It happens all the time — movies with eerily similar subject matter doubling up in the same year. As if there’s just something in the air causing different filmmakers to suddenly think alike, releasing movies that might as well be carbon copies of each other. (Though one is usually the clear superior — Dante’s Peak, take a bow; Volcano, you’re drunk, go home.)
Of course, there’s a special irony to it when the movies are about doppelgangers. Earlier this year, Jake Gyllenhaal played both a nebbishy professor and the cucumber-cool actor he discovers wearing his face in Enemy, and now Jesse Eisenberg is working double-time in Richard Ayoade’s The Double. Both movies feature the central actor as both an impotent, meek version of himself as well as a suaver, more confident twin; in both, an enigmatic blonde features prominently; in both, the doubles decide to switch places, with disastrous results; both are pretty open to interpretation as to what the hell is going on.
So which film is superior? Well, for once, these doppelgangers are equally good.
Despite surface similarities, Enemy and The Double are very different movies. Enemy takes itself very seriously, with the atmosphere of a Hitchcockian thriller. It ends not so much with a twist, but a full-on lambada. (I pretty much loved it; you can read my review here.)
The Double, on the other hand, has a surprising sense of humor. It’s very much a satire of bureaucracy, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, with the same manic zing to its performances. But it’s also a film about perception, one in which only the protagonist finds the fact that he’s been cloned overnight off-putting. Enemy is psychological and dream-like, while The Double is heightened and surreal. Enemy requires a bit more thought to put the pieces together, and I’m not sure there’s any way to arrive at a totally definitive answer to its eight-legged puzzle; The Double doesn’t require a whole lot of mental work, because it doesn’t present its premise as a mystery. You could, perhaps, explain away The Double with “He was really dead the whole time!” or “It was all a dream!”, but that’s less interesting than accepting this madcap world at face value and going along for the ride.
Co-writer/director Richard Ayoade’s first film was the quirky Submarine, which I didn’t love; you can sense some of Submarine‘s Wes Andersonian flourishes in The Double, but they’re put to much better use. As with Wes Anderson’s movies, The Double asks you to accept a world that does not exactly look like our own, where people do not behave quite as real people do. It’s all very stylized — instead of depicting the real world, it’s a facsimile that represents certain aspects we might recognize. (The sets and technology seems to plus us somewhere between the 1940s and the 1980s, but it’s definitely not a “period piece.”) That’s quite appropriate in a movie that is very much about copies, and how much our individuality and originality mean to us. It’s a movie about being different, and a movie about being the same.
Ironically, The Double turns out to be quite unique, though Anderson and Gilliam’s influences can certainly be felt. The world of The Double is not our real world, but a copy that turns out to be sharper than the original, just as the copy of its hero manages to upstage him in just about every way imaginable.
Doppelganger movies almost always present their protagonist and antagonist as dual sides of the same person, and that’s certainly the case here. Simon James is a corporate lackey at a company that does… something. There is much discussion of reports and productivity, but they don’t service any real purpose — nobody actually does anything that produces a tangible result. (Isn’t that basically how it is in the corporate world?) Their business is just a lot of busyness — paperwork, protocol, and prattle that yield nothing whatsoever, so far as we can tell. The company’s figurehead is the elusive Colonel, who is worshipped like a deity as so many CEOs and founders are, even when we know next to nothing about them. The company advertises that it’s all about “people,” but features them all speaking in unison — that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Then, one day, a worker named James Simon shows up. He looks exactly like Simon James, but no one seems to find that disturbing except for Simon himself. James is a jerk, a womanizer, a bully, and a buffoon who doesn’t even know what they do at this company, but everyone loves him immediately. That includes Simon’s boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (played by Wallace Shawn), and the love interest Simon is too shy to speak to, a winsome copy girl named Hannah (played by Mia Wasikowska). The fact that Hannah makes copies for a living, and her name is a palindrome, fit right in with the heightened reality The Double establishes in its early scenes. It’s all very surreal.An easy reading of The Double might lead you to believe that James Simon is merely Simon James’ id — he’s the bolder, brasher version of Simon himself, and therefore he’s more successful in every way. But this Tyler Durden approach has been done before, and The Double knows it. Really, The Double is making a sly point about the perils of perception — how some people, no matter what they do, can’t help but be perceived in a certain negative light, while others skate by with little to no effort and come out smelling like roses. Having both types portrayed by the same actor only highlights how arbitrary these factors of failure and success are — kindness, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and hard work often go unappreciated while someone louder, crueler, and far less careful reaps all the rewards. The Double picks away at this cosmic injustice until Simon essentially has a psychotic break — he’s not crazy, but everyone perceives him as crazy, so he might as well be. Knowing you’re right doesn’t much matter in this world if no one else knows it.
The Double gets at this existential dilemma, along with several others. It’s not subtle, but it is graceful. We all feel like beautiful, unique snowflakes in a world that treats us like cattle. We all want to be celebrated for our individuality, while the people we want to celebrate us look right through us.
Or — maybe not all of us. There are many Simon Jameses in this world, but also a handful of James Simons. Like, you know, the Kardashians. The Double digs into that nagging feeling that we deserve adoration and success more than they do. We’re better, dammit! And if you take appearance out of the equation — since Simon and James look exactly identical — it’s hard to see why the good ones flail when the bad ones thrive, except that human nature is just sick that way. It’s enough to drive a person crazy.For all its philosophical intrigue, however, The Double is also probably the funniest film I’ve seen yet this year, with a welcome streak of absurdity. Jesse Eisenberg is the perfect man to deliver the script’s rapid-fire deadpan — which should come as no surprise after his Oscar-nominated delivery of Aaron Sorkin’s drily funny dialogue in The Social Network — and there are amusing cameos from the likes of Chris O’Dowd and Sally Hawkins, as well as a surprising appearance by the recently elusive Cathy Moriarity as a bitchy waitress. (A large majority of the cast has worked with Ayoade previously.)
Its earnest moments are surprisingly touching, including a bit of dialogue in which Simon compares himself to the wooden Pinocchio that pays off beautifully later. The Double is amusing, touching, haunting, thought-provoking, original, and surprising — a combination that’s tricky to pull off, and something I certainly didn’t expect from Richard Ayoade. So far it’s one of my favorite films of 2014, competing only with — you guessed it — its evil twin, Enemy.