After his break-through role as the lovable nerd Maurice Moss in the Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd, many wouldn’t be faulted for thinking comedian Richard Ayoade wasn’t exactly “movie material”. However, after his directorial debut Submarine hit screens in 2010, it was quite clear that we had all judged far too quickly. The film’s subtle humour and deep emotional core lead to a heart-warming runaway indie hit and perceptions of Ayoade’s talents completely shifted. Now he returns with his second creation, a dystopian dramedy that promises to widen our perceptions of the London-born comic even further.
The first thing that becomes apparent about The Double is of course its setting. It’s impossible not to take note of the endlessly drab and muted colour tones of its mad and undiluted world; this clearly an edge towards the film’s Russian roots (a Dostoyevsky novella of the same name).
With his second film, Ayoade has graduated his influences from French new wave to Orwellian dystopia and the result is of course, a much less sunny disposition and a far darker set of laughs. This builds towards the realisation that the comedy on display here is much less noticeable, particularly beyond the (at times) deeply affecting plot. Much of the time, you really question if you even should be laughing at all.
With a bigger budget comes bigger stars, and so steps into the spotlight Jesse Eisenberg in the dual-lead role, playing both the ineptly invisible Simon James, and his counterpart (or “double”), the sensationally charming James Simon. Of course acting opposite yourself is never an easy job, but Eisenberg brings with him a certain penchant for both awkward humour and snide confidence that tears away any doubts towards confusion and makes for a truly entertaining watch.
Support is brought in by the ever-watchable Mia Wasikowska as Simon’s admirably cute love-interest, with a host of other Ayoade-alumni taking a bow (even if just briefly) to round off a familiar but noticeably great cast.
The real star of The Double comes not from the actors however, but more the back-drop to the whole deluded tale. Beneath the dark laughs and photographic trickery, is a living, breathing, functioning world of lost identity and bureaucratic nightmares. Much like many of the dystopian greats, Ayoade invests time and effort into building his world and layering the story over the top, creating a multi-tiered narrative that functions uniquely in its own right.
Over the course of the film, this haunting universe bleeds into the plot, fueling its madness and dictating its direction to great affect. This is the sign of a genius storyteller at work, and it’s clear to see.
Unfortunately, all cleverness aside, The Double does face some issues during its trek across the screen; namely with pacing. The first act of the film lumbers along at a forgivingly slow speed, mostly for introductory reasons, but from there on things become a little wobbly. Great chunks of exposition are fired out in bite-size lumps at random moments throughout the second and third acts, eventually blossoming into a climactic, yet painfully muddled conclusion. A schizophrenic pace may have been on Ayoade’s cards from the beginning, but that’s not to say that just because it was intentional it works. Instead it leaves a deeply jittery mark on an otherwise rich and thoughtful film.
Ultimately though, The Double is a beautifully shot and phenomenally clever new investment in the dystopian genre, but one that struggles to keep its wackiness to a watchable standard. None-the-less, it’s a giant leap for Ayoade’s career and certainly worth pursuing upon its eventual general release.
The Double (2013), directed by Richard Ayoade, is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival this October, not yet rated. The film currently has no nationwide release date.