“THE DOUBLE” (TIFF Movie Review)
Despite serving up plum roles for a pair of contemporary stars and coming from one of the most promising filmmakers of the moment, there’s something delightfully old fashioned about Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE. It’s one of those identity crisis existential horror movies that were all the rage in the heady art cinema days of the 60s. The film comes from a novella by Dostoevsky, features style and technique pulled from Roman Polanski and Orson Welles’ THE TRIAL. Yet it somehow also feels very much like a film of the moment. It’s a nightmare movie that crawls under your skin, while also proving to be one of the funniest features of the Toronto International Film Festival. Thematically, the flick is not an easy sit and yet Ayoade somehow makes it play as pure pleasure through his sardonic humor and cynical worldview. I guess you could call it a movie comprised of contradictions, and a wonderful one at that.
Jesse Eisenberg stars a clog in a soulless bureaucracy reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL. He’s a socially hopeless loser whose only pleasure in life is creeping/spying on his neighbor Mia Wasikowska for whom he feels a deep personal connection that he can’t seem to bring to fruition. Then something happens that makes Eisenberg’s world go all topsy-turvy. A new employee pops up in Eisenberg’s office: his exact physical double, but strong in all the ways he is weak. Eisenberg 2.0 is hyper-confident and a huge smash in the office and with the ladies. Eisenberg 1.0 forms a friendship with his doppelganger hoping that some of those social skills will rub off on him. However, Eisenberg 2.0 just uses the opportunity to take advantage of his double, stealing work to rise through the office ranks and even stealing away Wasikowska. On top of that, Eisenberg 1.0 also sees a man commit suicide across the street from his tiny apartment and starts to think that might not be a terrible solution to his problems. Cue a 90-minute nightmare of existential angst and paranoia, along with far more laughs than should theoretically be possible to mine from such material.
Richard Ayoade’s unique voice burst out of the gate as the writer/director/co-star of the brilliant trash horror parody GARTH MARENGHI’S DARKPLACE and has been only growing in maturity and ability as his career wears on. His cinematic debut SUBMARINE was a sweet, heartfelt, and surprisingly dark coming-of-age comedy, but THE DOUBLE takes his skills to another level. With a cast populated by comedy gold like Eisenberg, Chris O’Dowd, Wallace Shawn, and the incomparable Chris Morris, the film can be as funny as anything he’s ever done. And yet, it’s also as deeply unsettling and complex an experience as the source material suggests. Ayoade creates a harsh, uncompromising world completely divorced from our own beyond satirical similarities. When he plunges into the nightmare section of the film, he shoots through subjective techniques that cram the audience into Eisenberg’s fractured headspace in a way that can be deeply disconcerting and affecting. In Eisenberg, he also found an ideal (co)lead, with each personality tapping into his two established personas (an impossibly awkward dork and raging egoist respectively) in a performance that milks the actor’s comedic and dramatic chops for all their worth.
THE DOUBLE is a wonderful little movie, as viscerally enjoyable and brain-tingly complex as you’d hope. When or how it will ever get a release is a reasonable question, but it’s the type of movie destined for cult appreciation and that’s the type of flick that tends to be discovered by fans rather than handed to them. We all knew that Ayoade could make mocking, failed horror after DARKPLACE, but the fact that he’s actually got a gift for atmospheric dread once the irony is removed qualifies as a pleasant surprise. Hopefully this is a road he decides to tip-toe down again.