Review: Richard Ayoade’s uneven ‘The Double’ makes strong use of twice the Jesse Eisenberg

TORONTO – It can be difficult understanding who someone is when you’re simply looking at roles they’ve played in films or on television, because so often, actors simply book whatever jobs are available, and they aren’t really responsible for the content of many of the films on their filmographies. Once someone starts to write and direct, you get a much more defined picture of who they are, and in the case of Richard Ayoade, I’m delighted that he turned out to be every bit as eclectic and sharp and funny as I would have hoped.

His first feature, “Submarine,” is a small beautiful piece about teenage heartbreak, and it really hit me hard at Sundance in 2010. Well-observed, perfectly cast, it certainly felt like the work of someone who must have viewed “Rushmore” as a landmark in some way, but it also had enough specific voice of its own that I didn’t mind that I could clearly sense his influences. Now, with his latest feature, “The Double,” Ayoade appears to be making a public declaration of his love for Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” as seen through the filter of one of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s most famous works. The script, written by Ayoade and Avi Korine, wrings every bit of uncomfortable humor possible from the piece, and it is willfully, proudly surreal.

Dostoevsky’s book is one of those texts that you can read in myriad ways, where no simple interpretation is offered. Is it the story of a government clerk who has a break with reality, inventing an alternate personality that allows him to finally assert himself, free from the responsibility of what this alternate version, this double, says or does? Or it is the story of a man who literally meets his doppleganger, only to see the other version of himself eclipse every part of his life? The book is a painful exercise in tone and style, and quite chilling if taken literally, while even more scary if taken as an extended metaphor. Ayoade has an eye for fine detail, and he underlines his thematic choices with everything from the costume design, stranding Eisenberg in ill-tailored oversized suits, to the way machinery is designed to feel as low-tech and ugly as possible.

Ayoade and Korine have been faithful to the broad strokes of the book, but it is definitely their particular take on it. Jesse Eisenberg stars as both Simon James and James Simon. One is a meek, nervous office drone who works for a large company run by The Colonel, who is perfectly embodied by James Fox, and the other is a confident, brash, charismatic figure who quickly climbs the ladder of success at the company where the other has struggled for years. It’s interesting casting precisely because the two halves of this personality seem to constantly struggle for dominance in the work that Eisenberg does anyway. Watching him in “Now You See Me” or “The Social Network,” you can see the way he’s turned anxiety and arrogance combined into a very personal performance style, one that Ayoade makes full use of here.

Erik Wilson, who also shot “Submarine,” is building a reputation as a very strong director of photography, particularly with tough and stark subject matter. Paddy Considine’s “Tyrannosaur,” the documentary “The Imposter,” an upcoming documentary about Nick Cave… his work here, though, is basically beholden to “Brazil,” and I have no doubt that’s what Ayoade was asking him to do. For a movie that barely got released and was never a huge hit, “Brazil” has cast an incredibly long shadow over film in general, with hundreds and hundreds of films owing it some sort of debt. Would Tim Burton’s Gotham City have looked the way it does if “Brazil” and “Blade Runner” didn’t exist? Hard to say, but I am fairly sure that “The Double” would not look the way it does if not for Gilliam’s work. David Crank, the production designer, must have been taking his cues from Ayoade, because this doesn’t feel at all like his work for films like “The Master” or the movies like “Lincoln” “The Tree Of Life,” and “There Will Be Blood” where he was the art director.

Is it a bad thing that the film wears its influences so nakedly? Well, it’s distracting at first, but eventually Ayoade gets a handle on it, and the film finds its own footing. It helps that Eisenberg is so good with Mia Wasikowska, playing a girl who works at the same company who he has wanted to speak to for years, only to see The Double immediately woo her, win her over completely, and then treat her badly. She has finally made the jump to playing adults, and she makes such interesting choices that I find her compelling even when a film doesn’t totally work. Between this and Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” I think she’s demonstrating real range in the roles she’s playing. Her chemistry with Eisenberg makes scenes really pop, even when they’re written in a fairly low key. There are touches throughout that reminded me that this is Ayoade’s work, like a TV show that we catch glimpses of that seem to star Paddy Considine as the action hero lead of a crazy bad science-fiction BBC show. If you’re a fan of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” you’ll howl at the Considine show, which seems to be the only thing that’s on television pretty much any time Simon turns it on.

There are a number of actors who do strong supporting work in the film like Wallace Shawn and Noah Taylor and Cathy Moriarty, and there are a number of individual scenes or moments that I liked. I think it feels rather slight once it all comes to a conclusion, and it’s possible that ladling on the style so heavily buries the things that “The Double” does well. I didn’t feel that same immediate passion towards the film as I did towards “Submarine,” and upon reflection, there are things about the film that really don’t work for me.

Still, it feels like Ayoade is a developing filmmaker who is going to be fascinating to watch over time. Anyone who goes from “Submarine” to “The Double” is someone worth watching, and Ayoade remains a fiercely individual voice both in front of the camera and behind it. This is a strong film even if it is flawed, and I’ll be curious to see how a distributor goes about selling this one to audiences without totally misrepresenting it.

No word yet on who will be distributing this in the US or when.