GFF 2014: The Double 0 27

gff-2014-the-double

A few years ago The I.T. Crowd star Richard Ayoade made his directorial debut with the wonderful Submarine, a charming film about young love borne out of isolation. Now he follows up his triumphant debut with a true oddity of a film, one that doesn’t quite hang together as a whole but is never short of interesting throughout.

Based on the novella written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Double follows Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) a shy and by all accounts ordinary office worker whose life is one day turned upside down upon the arrival of James Simon (also Eisenberg), a charming new employee at the company who appears to be his doppelgänger. The trouble is everyone seems to love his double who soon begins to meddle and practically take over his life.

The influence of other director’s work on Ayoade’s latest effort is extremely evident, not least of which is Terry Gilliam and particularly his masterpiece Brazil. From its nervy average Joe leading character to its nightmarish old-meets-new officious world, the film almost feels like a direct descendant of that dystopian vision, albeit a far less disciplined one.

Ayoade’s film is one of individual moments rather than a cohesive satisfying whole and feels like somewhat of a regression from his accomplished debut. Where Submarine felt sure of its own identity – as much as it was influenced by the likes of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, it also felt very much like its own brand of idiosyncratic – The Double feels caught between a mass of ideas and never quite settles on a through-line to make it truly satisfying as an overall cinematic experience. Is it a film truly about isolation? Paranoia? Self-destruction? It hints at all of these things but often sorely lacks subtlety – such as when a character explicitly states to Simon that he’s “pretty unnoticeable, a bit of a non-person” – and never quite puts its finger on any of them during its increasingly perplexing plot.

There’s definite worth to be found throughout, however, not least in the cast. While perhaps the doppelgänger character may have required an actor with more gravitas than Eisenberg to pull off the overbearing, sinister qualities the role demands, he’s brilliant in the lead role. Mia Wasikowska is also very good as Simon’s would-be girlfriend who, like most of the cast, we’re never quite sure of her agenda or even if she’s real and not just a figment of our put-upon hero’s imagination. There’s a joy to be had in simply spotting the character actors that turn up throughout including Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige, all of whom appeared in his previous film.

Ayoade employs some eclectic methods to unnerve the audience – the split-screen doubling effect is particularly clever and utterly seamless – and he succeeds overall at creating a palpable sense of menace and atmosphere, setting his follow-up feature in a world that sits somewhere between the aforementioned Brazil and David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive. The latter even carries through to its plot that, like both of Lynch’s film, culminates in a way that will leave you scratching your head but unlike them in that it never has any sort of emotional impact. The simultaneously futuristic and vintage production design, performances and surreal, other worldly atmosphere are just about enough sustain a film that never feels sure of what it wants to be, what it wants to say or how it wants to say it.

The Double is released in UK cinemas on April 4th.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 203

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 227

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10