By Max Winter | Press Play May 9, 2014 at 5:04AM
Let’s be realistic: offices are unnatural places. It’s not second nature to wake up, shower, and then leave one’s living space, sit at a desk, and then engage all day in activities which have very little to do with one’s own interests. The very thought of it, in fact, is surreal. And yet, for many people, the work-space and the home-space are symbiotic. What happens in one affects what happens in the other, shaping it, building it up and destroying it by turns. In fact, for some, what happens at work radically displaces anything that might happen outside of it. Richard Ayoade’s The Double, based on a parable-esque novel by Dostoevsky, is the quintessential workplace film.
The movie builds on a long history; starting with Chaplin’s Modern Times, going through films as diverse as His Girl Friday, The Apartment, Network, The Firm, The Game, Dancer in the Dark, Office Space, and even Being John Malkovich, film has proven an effective medium for showing how easily we accept the absurdities and injustices of the workplace. The Double twists this vision further by locating a chronically absurd workplace in an even more absurd environment and allowing the two worlds to bleed into each other, so that the boundary between work and life becomes weirdly blurred. Our antihero here is Simon James, played beautifully here by Jesse Eisenberg, in a role that could have been written for him, that of a sputtering, awkward, gangly, hapless soul, unable to make choices that might bring him into a position of power. He works in a givernment bureau that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever been an office drone, or who’s ever had work nightmares, or who’s ever had nightmares. It’s not clear what Simon does—other than preparing reports. On what? That’s not clear either. And it’s not important. It never is—either in film or in real life. Simon’s supervisor, Mr. Papadopoulos, played with smiling malevolence by Wallace Shawn, looms over Simon, never approving of him, but also too wrapped up in his ambiguous enterprise to notice what his employee is doing. The employees of this company are beaten-down, drab, mousy, and creepy, by turns: of particular note here is Harris (Noah Taylor), bedecked with a comically large mustache, the archetypal Annoying Co-worker, employed for too long, best years behind him, his only pleasure taken in needling others. Mia Wasikowska’s Hannah, Simon’s obsessive crush, is a bright spot here, a point of animation, the archetypal Cute Girl from the Other Department, but in the drab light of the film, even she begins to seem a little off-putting.
What of that drab light? Everything is dark or about to be darkened in Ayoade’s unnamed metropolis. Nothing works quite the way it should: the elevator doors, in an early slapstick scene, lunge at Simon each time he tries to exit, and the ID scanner perpetually rejects his ID, though he's worked at the company for seven years. The characters’ parlance is modern-sounding, and yet the office copy machine is massive and antiquated, and the computers have a late-80s look to them, at best. The cubicles are a dark, gloomy mahogany, and the black concrete floors seem to exist primarily to echo characters’ footsteps. The world outside isn’t much more uplifting. The sky is always overcast, the night always seems like the kind of evening during which you’d rather be home in bed. And the living spaces, if Simon’s apartment is any indication, are drab, more like workers’ dormitories than anything else. The walls are dirty, the bed is threadbare, a small TV set sits right at the head of the bed; when Simon watches the spinning, hallucinatory shapes on his TV, he sits bolt upright, sipping a meager glass of water, looking more as if he’s working than enjoying himself. Hannah lives across a courtyard from Simon, reinforcing the idea that one can’t escape one’s job, that work and life are inseparable. Early in the film, a man falls to his death in the courtyard—which actually serves as a bonding experience for the coworkers. Simon and Hannah live in a bit of a wasteland, but it’s not silent; Awaode has provided an eccentric soundtrack composed of, among other things, Japanese pop, that, strangely enough, matches the timeless mood he has set elsewhere. When Simon has a mini-date with Hannah after the suicide, she ditches him, leaving him a coin for the jukebox; the scene that follows, showing the budding of Simon’s swooning infatuation to the Japanese tune he chooses with Hannah's coin, is one of the more startling transitions I’ve seen in a film in a long time. You would think that the atmosphere of the film would smother suspense, would make an element of shock or surprise impossible, and yet when the movie does turn on itself, the change hits you like a bucket of cold water in the face.
What change? Well, Simon’s company hires a new employee,
named James Simon, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who is, essentially, Eisenberg’s
other half of talents; he’s called in by Ayoade to play that eternal office
figure, The Jerk One Step Ahead of You, and he does it brilliantly. In recent
years, like some other actors, Eisenberg has been letting his mean side show.
It began with his turn in The Social
Network, continued middlingly with Now You See Me, and has popped out here as well. Eisenberg
is brilliant, essentially playing the negative image of Simon in James:
more confident, more talkative, more physically aggressive, smarter, and meaner.
James and Simon have a complicated relationship: antagonistic at first, they
then become somewhat chummy. James takes Simon out for drinks and, in a scene
reminiscent of Eisenberg’s tutelage with Campbell Scott’s grizzled dandy in Roger Dodger, James tries to show Simon
how to pick up women. The film flirts with a conversion narrative here, a
coming-of-age for the timid Simon, in which he unwittingly teaches himself how
to be more bold, but then it thankfully gets back to its real subject: the
office. The two promptly become rivals, as James snatches Hannah away from
Simon—and then surpasses him at work, earning praise for, sadly enough, Simon’s
work. As one chance for ascent and then another is taken from Simon’s hands, he
becomes increasingly frantic. In any other film, Simon might force various
moments—with Hannah, with his job, with life in general—to their crises, but
the film resists this sort of progress, instead burrowing deeper into the
poetic potential of struggling with your double or, rather, yourself, in the
only arena open to you. Simon, not above his own form of creepiness, has been
prone to spying on Hannah across the courtyard, even scooping her trash out of a trash chute; at one
point he looks over and sees James, who has moved into the
complex, staring back at him. Roman Polanski fans will think, possibly, of similar scenes in his film The Tenant, which had a comparably mordant
progression, including a man’s sighting of himself across an airshaft, and dealt
equally well with the horror which self-reflection can create. As the duel between Simon and James winds towards a conclusion, one could argue that Ayoade moves a bit too quickly, expcts a bit too much attention from his viewers--and yet the moment the film reaches at its end seems inevitable, or as inevitable as an ending could be in a film endowed with this much imaginative courage. The lives Ayoade's characters lead are lived entirely for the service of an entity greater than them, the workplace, and so it makes perfect sense that the struggles in that workplace lead to self-destruction, symbolic or not; the world Ayoade offers has its beginning and its end there. Though its story, in some senses, has the simplicity and the naive fantasy of a fairy tale, it will provoke consideration long after it ends--who knows, it might even make you want to take a day off work.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.