Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Life Trap: "The Double" an eccentric, absurdly funny dream

The Double (2014)
93 min., rated R.

Who knew Fyodor Dostoyevsky could be such a laugh riot? An adaptation of the Russian author's 1846 novella, "The Double" triples itself as an existential allegory, an absurdist black comedy, and something sinister and Kafka-esque. As with his directorial debutthe Wes Anderson-influenced "Submarine"—British director Richard Ayoade seems to be paying homage to the style of other filmmakers (one can probably spot nods to Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch here), but what style it is. Written by Ayoade and Avi Korine (Harmony's brother), the film, set in a dystopian, mechanical and retro-futuristic world where the sun does not shine, reminds of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," with allusions to "Pinocchio" thrown in for good measure. Stylistically arch and idiosyncratic as it is, "The Double" has an unexpected emotional punch, too. 

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a meek, gawky, practically invisible pushover, is having the daynay, lifefrom Hell. On his way to work, he has to give up his seat on an empty subway car and then loses his briefcase to the automatic doors. Simon has worked for "The Colonel" (James Fox) at the same government office for seven years and yet the security guard always gives him a hard time and his boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), can't ever remember his name. His mother (Phyllis Somerville) thinks he's a disappointment, but drains her son of his finances to stay in an assisted-living home. The joy this non-entity has in his life is watching office copy girl Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) paint and tear up her artwork from afar in her studio apartment with his telescope. Then a new employee is introduced to the office. His name is James Simon (Eisenberg), a confident, devil-may-care guy who looks exactly like Simon, even though no one but Sam sees the resemblance. Simon and James become friends, while at the same time James starts running the office and then rubs Simon out of his own life.

Absurdly funny, appealingly off-kilter, and melancholy, "The Double" reminds us why we go to the movies, throwing us into a new world that might look like 1998's brilliant "Dark City" but still feels imaginatively and vividly realized. Rich in dingy, steampunk color, wonderful production design and industrial sound design that might borrow the howling wind from "Eraserhead," the film makes it easy to get lost in, even before the plot proper kicks in. The viewer can't help but feel sorry for the perpetually sorry Simon, even when his invisibility becomes maddening. Though the bleak environment and air of madness would not sound like real estate for hilarity, comic timing is definitely director Ayoade's strong suit. When the doubles go for food at Simon's diner haunt, James stands up to the same rude waitress (Cathy Moriarty) that always waits on Simon by asking for exactly what he wants, earning a "Five Easy Pieces"-like laugh. However, there is a cruel remove to how the film treats Simon, like when James tells Simon, "You're pretty unnoticeable. Bit of a nonperson."

Effectively pulling off the tricky task of playing dual roles, the lanky Jesse Eisenberg not only gets to play twins who are polar opposites in personality, but he's playing two characters who are vastly different from the actor's constricting role of Mark Zuckerberg. He's touching and passively sad as ghostly sad-sack Simon and infuriatingly cool and cocky as ladies' man James. As Hannah, who feels like she doesn't belong and fluffs off Simon stalking her, Mia Wasikowska brings a sad, understated yearning to the role and keeps reaffirming that she can play spiky and sweet without any problems. The director also finds little places for his "Submarine" cast (Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, and Noah Taylor). Roberts and Jon Korkes are both oddball hoots with a rat-a-tat delivery down pat as the detectives investigating the suicide of a man who waved to witness Simon just before jumping off the ledge of Hannah's apartment. 

Audiences who are in the know might feel they're seeing double, as this is the second film about doppelgängers being released this year (the Jake Gyllenhaal-starrer "Enemy" was the first). Surely, one will be hard-pressed to find much literal, conventional sense in either, but Ayoade's film is draped in such visual flair that he somehow makes feel fresh and it's loaded with quirk that is offset by a pall of doom and gloom (and vice versa). For a dreamlike nightmare out of "The Twilight Zone," "The Double" is delightfully weird fun. 

Grade: B +

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