Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is a lonely guy who is scorned by his mum, invisible to his colleagues at work, and the girl of his dreams (Mia Waikowska) simply ignores him. Things get worse when a new guy starts work at the same company. The spitting image of Simon, James is the complete opposite when it comes to personality: he's confident, charismatic, and has the knack for attracting women. Soon, Simon discovers, to his horror, that James is slowly taking over his life.
* * 1/2
The idea of the doppelganger has fascinated storytellers for centuries—though as time has passed, what was once the stuff of comedy, farces of muddled identities and baffled brides, has come to assume steadily darker shades. It’s hardly a coincidence that, since the dawn of psychoanalysis, it’s become a kind of narrative shorthand for deep existential terrors, the estrangement of the mind from itself… from Conrad’s The Secret Sharer and Poe’s William Wilson, through to the intensely subjective, claustrophobic nightmares of Nabokov (Despair) and Saramago (The Double).
Filmmakers, too, have found the subject irresistible. For my money, though, its best and most unsettling expression remains Joseph Losey’s 1976 drama Mr. Klein, with Alain Delon as an opportunistic art dealer in occupied Paris, a Gentile, who discovers to his horror that he is being confused with another Robert Klein, a Jew being sought by the Nazi authorities for deportation to Germany. As the ambiguities mount, we watch ‘our’ Klein writhe like a hare in a trap, struggling to escape even as the jaws tighten inexorably upon him…
That film, alert to the consequences of the unreconciled self, understood something that this one does not. The notion of the perfect double is a powerful supernatural device. As such, it needs to be situated in an identifiably real world, so as to amplify its basic irrationality. This film, by contrast, constructs a setting so artificial, an environment so mannered, that the uncanny element is quickly lost amid the art-direction. And since no one in it behaves like a recognisable human being, it also forfeits any chance of an emotional connection. What’s left is a string of elegant, tableaux-like scenes that add up, in the end, to rather less than they should.
Based on Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name, it’s been adapted—with surprising fidelity—by its director, British comic actor Richard Ayoade, in collaboration with Avi Korine, younger brother of the appalling Harmony.
Working for ’The Colonel’, a military-suited older gent whose corporation does or makes god-knows-what, Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a chair-moistener so unremarkable that even after seven years of loyal service his line-manager (Wallace Shawn) barely remembers that he even works there. Toiling away in his dismal cubicle, surrounded by septuagenarian co-workers, he harbours a hopeless crush on the only other young person in the company—the pretty, gamine Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). Who, naturally, is barely aware that he exists.
Simon’s life is a Tati-like string of petty humiliations: the company security guard who never recognises him, the elevator doors that close in his face, the diner waitress who sneers whenever he attempts to order (played, in a very welcome return to the screen, by Raging Bull’s Cathy Moriarty). His ageing mother considers him a failure; one of her friends at the nursing home, a gargoyle of a woman, thinks him a menace. (“You’re not right,” she tells him flatly.) Softly-spoken, deferential to the point of invisibility, he feels like a ghost haunting his own life. “I am permanently outside myself,” he confesses.
But then into this wretched existence comes his double: ‘James Simon’. He’s identical in every physical respect (though no one but Simon seems to notice this fact)—but cocksure, socially adept, and positively beguiling to his boss. He’s the evil twin, the unrestrained id to Simon’s over-developed ego, and before long he’s seduced Simon’s would-be girlfriend, annexed his apartment, and usurped his career. Leaving no space for the miserable original to inhabit.
The setting is your standard, Terry Gilliam-derived dystopia—all lo-tech and Atlee-era privation; it’s an aesthetic not so much influenced by as taken wholesale from his 1985 masterpiece Brazil. The telephones are rotary-dial, the wallpaper drab and peeling; the light seems filtered through some giant teabag. There’s not a single frame of daylight in the entire film, and the result feels airless in the wrong way, constricting the actors and flattening the emotions—despite some vivid, startling flashes of colour, scattered here and there throughout the frames.
Whether grinning sardonically at his buttoned-up, perpetually tongue-tied other half, or stammering in perpetual apology-mode, Eisenberg is reminiscent of the ‘bad’ Michael Cera from Youth in Revolt; all he needs is a comedy-moustache. It’s fine, and uses his broken whisper of a voice to good effect, but I expected more—some of the genuine cruelty, perhaps, that he bought to his Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.
One of my favourite contemporary actresses, Wasikowska fares only slightly better. Her Hannah seems weirdly undefined, a set of behaviours in search of a character, and her scenes with Eisenberg—in either of his incarnations—somehow crucially fail to pop. Part of the reason, I think, resides in Ayoade’s direction of the dialogue, which too often has the springy, rapid-fire quality of theatre exchanges, where no one is actually listening or reacting to what’s being said; they’re simply waiting for their beat. Which fits with the artificiality of the world, but makes for irritating listening.
Likewise, Wallace Shawn seems wasted, given simply too many words to get through per line; and James Fox (Ayoade’s real-life father-in-law, weirdly enough), as the mysterious Colonel, is as frustratingly elusive to the viewer as he is to Simon himself.
There are some powerful visual flourishes—mostly rapid montage sequences: the camera pushing in fast on something before cutting away, or veering abruptly to one side—or turning over, to assume corpse-pose at the base of the building from which some poor unfortunate has jumped. (The two credited editors, Nick Fenton and Chris Dickens, deliver some hugely impressive work.) Freud, in his essay ‘The Uncanny’, described the doppelganger as an expression of utopian dreams suppressed by the reality principle. But there’s no reality at all here, just artifice piled upon artifice—and therefore, no way out. By halfway in, a certain tedium sets in; suddenly, leaping to one’s death makes a whole lot more sense.
Ayoade’s debut feature, 2011’s Submarine, was a coming-of-age story set in Swansea in the 1980s. It was sweet and funny and extremely well-made, though very much in a tradition, indebted to Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. This one bears loftier influences—Gilliam, of course… but also Aki Kaurismaki and Orson Welles: the latter’s Kafka adaptation, The Trial, seems to be a presiding influence. Which is fine: Ayoade knows his film history. He’s smart and talented, and clearly has good taste. At this stage, though, I’m still waiting to see if he has anything urgent and compelling of his own to say.