Monday, 7 April 2014

The Double (2013, UK)

Fourth Wall rating: 6.5/10

"Within a week, you'll get hand-on-boob!"

Richard Ayoade brings Dostoyevsky's sardonic masterpiece to life with a charming if slightly humdrum sci-fi version of the 'loser' genre, with a nightmarish, grey, cubicle-culture, data-crunching vision of our world.

Director: Richard Ayoade | WritersRichard Ayoade & Avi Korine, based on novella "The Double" by F. Dostoyevsky ActorsJesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, et al | Cinematographer: Erik Wilson | Studio Film4, BFI, Alcove Entertainment ProducersMichael Caine, RC Fox, A. Dasmal & G. Cox.
One sentence description: Jesse Eisenberg is a loser but then his double shows up and shows him how it's done.
One (long) sentence review: Like an iphone 5 - you've seen it before, it's nothing new, it doesn't always do the right thing, but it's still fun and ok to look at. 
Watch it if… You like your dystopian past/future. 
Don’t watch it if… You need closure at the end of a film. 
Best thing about the film… Simon's mum's friend. Strange bean.
Like a waveform out of sync, Simon’s actions are just behind or ahead of where they need to be. He often does the right things, but at the wrong time, and so ends up with nothing. Despite being one of the most innovative and hard-working employees in his nondescript data analysis job, he is not recognised by anyone (literally), least of all, his boss. He pathetically mopes around Hannah (Wasikowska) but she barely acknowledges his existence. He’s very responsive to his mother, but she ignores and otherwise impugns him (in tandem with her weird friend at the mental institution). It becomes clear that he occupies a lowly place in a very depressing, austere, over-standardised and conformist world (stop me if you’ve heard this one), but almost inexplicably, his maintains his enthusiasm. He also watches a ridiculously bad TV show with an invincible hero who chases down bad guys and “gets the girl”.
One day, a man who looks and sounds exactly like Simon is recruited by his company and becomes an overnight sensation (such as it would be in a place like this). “James” becomes the star of the workplace by trading on Simon’s work, he beds Hannah (which sounds like it would be devastating, but Simon looks merely frustrated) and is a generally confident, successful guy. Almost nobody seems to notice that Simon & James look identical. While Simon & James start off as buddies (not in any conventional sense of the word, mind), they soon become adversaries. In amongst all this, another man who had been stalking Hannah commits suicide, which leads to the ‘suicide police’ to visit Simon. We learn that there is a lot of suicide going on.

Here’s how a typical scene in ‘The Double’ goes: Jesse Eisenberg’s main character (Simon) does something, then Hannah / his boss appears, he tries to impress her/him, then as he gets close, his double (James) shows up and takes the glory for his work, while he’s forced to watch. Sound like fun? Then you’re in the right place.

First impressions are that this film’s world is very unforgiving, cold, brutally honest and devoid of true pleasure. The cinematography (Erik Wilson) is very dark and dank, which gives the film a ‘post-Soviet decay’ look that such an unrelentingly depressing film deserves. However, this may be overdone, as it goes well beyond the level needed to make a point. We get the feeling that Ayoade and Korine are trying to set us up for a pay-off, given the incessant humiliation heaped on our hero, but in the end we get something almost as pathetic as the beginning. In a gritty drama, we could brush this off as ‘social realism’, but in such an openly mischievous mystery/comedy, it just seems out of place. Perhaps we don’t expect Hannah to fall into Simon’s arms, but do we have to see him get embarrassment instead of affection from his own mother?

But then Jesse Eisenberg has been asked to dial up his usual dweebiness “up to 11”, for his Simon avatar, and then play an arrogant, fast-talking lothario for the other. Eisenberg comes from the same indie/fast-talking stock as Ellen Page and the casts of The Office (US) and Parks and Recreation – as a result, he seems slightly out of place in this film. This is because we expect the protag to be less verbose, like Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry in Terry Gilliams’s Brazil (1985). Brazil, by the way, is actually a more nuanced exposition on dank offices staffed with uninspiring people doing a pointless job for a nondescript organisation.

On the other hand, Eisenberg’s quirky mannerisms are interesting enough that he held my attention for most of the film, although his encounters with Wasikowska’s character are anything except ‘meet-cute’. All characters other than Eisenberg’s are caricatured, but enjoyably so. The myriad old-fashioned gadgets are also charming, if completely borrowed from several older films. The fact that Ayoade has taken the time and care to bring Dostoyevsky’s vision of doppelgangers to the screen is worthwhile in its oddness alone.

Speaking of doppelgangers, there are actually 2 pairs of doppelgangers in the film – Eisenberg’s character and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s character, except the latter’s avatars speak with different accents and have different jobs. Simon acknowledges this but then moves on. Is this meant to signify something? Most likely, there WAS an explanation that ultimately made contact with the editing room floor. The ending is meant to be cryptic but to this reviewer doesn’t seem to be anything more than a Jungian complex resolution (see below). We can view the doppelgangers as online avatars and wish-fulfilment – James was the man Simon wanted to be, even though he was repulsed by it when he finally met it. The final scene may well be a severing of the online persona. 

The appearance of doppelgangers also usually indicates the death of ‘the original’ – the case of linking the doppelgangers complicates their independence. Usually, the appearance also indicates a massive rupture in the subject’s psyche – but don’t waste your time looking for one, because there wasn’t one. This is another weakness of the material – it seems to think that because it’s satirical, it needn’t explain itself. As a result, we’re torn between true satire and sci-fi notions of doppelgangers and alternate universes. In another age, this may have been a magnificent work of satire, but today it seems a bit uneven. Nonetheless, it is engaging and reasonably entertaining, thus earning a solid 6.5/10.

Let’s look at the doppelganger mythology, starting with the one that gave us the word: in Germany, the word was coined in the novel Siebenkäs (1797), by Jean Paul. In the novel, ‘Firmian Stanislaus Siebenkäs’ finds himself unsatisfied by his life and is advised by his friend, who also happens to be his doppelganger, to fake his own death. This is so that he may start a new life, and he soon meets the beautiful Natalie; they fall in love and marry.
One of the ways to view the story of this film is via Sigmund Freud’s theory of the id, ego and superego. As Freud says in his “New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis” (1933): “[id] is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality…we approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations”.
In this film, Eisenberg’s psyche starts to come apart and separates into its components, with ‘James’ being the id, the wish-fulfilment guy. Simon becomes the ego, which is the part that tries to make the id’s wishes come true and keeps it rooted in reality. Simon is also the superego, whose conscience holds him back from being truly ruthless. Until the end. Some unresolved conflict caused this to come out into the open, which may well be a sign of mental illness.

However, Carl Jung considered Freud’s theory too obsessed with unresolved emotions and was himself more interested in ‘complexes’ – for example, Eisenberg’s character had a self-esteem complex, which prevents him for meaningfully chasing Hannah or his bosses at work. However, Mr. Papadopoulos gives him no chance to do so, leaving him with an unresolved personal complex at the heart of his work life, which seems to define almost his whole life.
What’s also interesting is that we’ve now had 2 films with data analysts in surrealist situations, the other being Zero Theorem. We can read into this that the movie industry is belatedly catching up to the trend in employment aimed at harnessing ‘big data’ – everyone from football clubs to the Large Hadron Collider are using more statistical wizardry than ever before. In ZT, we have Christophe Waltz’s character, who manipulates cubes of formulae (yes, really) in order to solve equations, and then we have The Double, where Eisenberg’s company turns people into incomprehensible graphs and tables. AM

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