TIFF 2013 – It’s Terrible to Be Alone Too Much: Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE

1-The-Double-Richard-Ayoade

Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE is one of the best movies of the year. Co-written by the actor / writer / director along with Avi Korine, the film is a contemporary take on Dostoyevsky’s classic novella: the story of a man (Jesse Eisenberg) who gradually finds his life being usurped by a doppelgänger. It’s classic setup, and one which we’ve seen put on the screen a number of times in the last few years alone. Yet Ayoade’s film is so stylized, so different and so tightly constructed that it manages to stand apart in a wonderfully entertaining way.

THE DOUBLE is a darkly comic, surreal nightmare. From the lighting (which is extremely high-contrast and almost noir-esque) to the claustrophobic, dirty and detailed stage design (which recalls early Terry Gilliam, most notably from BRAZIL), you know exactly what kind of movie you’re about to watch from the very first frame. Lights flickering and short-circuiting above his head, a cacophony of sounds surrounding and almost oppressing him, Eisenberg’s Simon James (counterpointed against his doppelgänger’s James Simon) sits alone on a train. Moments later, a faceless passenger appears and announces that Simon is sitting in his spot – despite the fact that every other seat in the car is empty. It’s the perfect opening to a film which relies so heavily on the idea that Simon barely exists, even before his life is taken over by James; as one character so accurately notes, he’s “not very noticeable”. He is wallpaper. He is a ghost.

Eisenberg could not have found a more perfect role(s) for himself than this. Much like Cera’s double-sided turn in YOUTH IN REVOLT, Eisenberg gets a chance to flex both muscles: the ineptly shy, cripplingly introverted Simon, juxtaposed against James’ sociable and nearly sociopathic levels of geniality are the perfect playground for Eisenberg, and he hits it out of the park at every turn. From his stutter and almost unbearable awkwardness to scary levels of extroversion, he treads the whole spectrum with ease.

Ayoade’s visuals are fully complimentary as well. This is one of those rare films that is completely and wholly realized in the best way possible. Faces are constantly obscured – by shadows, by composition, by limbs and objects. They are nearly always revealed from behind something, rather than displayed as a given. In a perfect early example, Simon – his face half-covered by his own arm – slides his face backwards in order to get a better view of a woman in the next train car. In doing so, he reveals the other side of his face, and the simple change between those hemispheres at the presence of this woman is unnerving and revealing of his character.

The film is filled to the brim with absurdist humor, again, much in the style of Terry Gilliam. The bureaucratic nightmare which is Simon’s place of employment is filled with hanging wires, pipes, 50’s-style imaginings of future computers and dimly-lit cubicles. It’s straight out of BRAZIL, sure, but it works here magnificently. Ayoade brings with him his own unique brand of dry, contemporary British humor as well, so the “jokes” come fast and hard. Dialogue exchanges are rapid-fire, each played with a perfectly subtle comedic tone, all desperately revelatory. This is the kind of film where characters openly say what they’re thinking, and the subtext beyond that is more in the abstract than in the literal. It’s all extremely surreal, like a fever dream of another world. A favorite scene involves a pair of detectives whose sole job is to investigate suicides – something which is so rampant in their city that they can barely cover Simon’s neighborhood alone. Their biting dialogue and cool indifference is more revelatory of Simon’s state of mind than of their own.

Because this is definitely a very subjective film. Everything takes place through the eyes of Simon, and it’s hard to know how much of it is a manifestation of his own disturbed mind or whether or not this is just how this world operates. His love-interest / girl that he is obsessed with, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), even seems to share agency with him. Though she’s clearly on her own path, the way she moves and speaks seem more of a twisted version of reality, filtered through Simon’s off-centered eyes.

The film understandably explores interesting ideas about identity, individuality and other themes which are common to this kind of story, but the true strength of THE DOUBLE isn’t in the story itself – it’s in the way the story is told. Ayoade and his crew have crafted a wonderfully unique and memorable film, and everybody involved brings their A-game. Everything about it is dense, layered, funny, compelling and thought-provoking. It deserves repeat viewings and thorough analysis, something which is rare to see these days. See it as soon as possible.

[A+]

d.a. garabedian

TIFF 2012 – Micro-Review: Ben Timlett, Bill Jonesa and Jeff Simpson’s A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN

A Liar's Autobiography -- The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman - TIFF 2012

Review originally posted at The Arts Scene, here.

A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN is many things, but it’s most certainly not predictable. Though the entire film plays out more or less like an extended version of one of the animated interludes from any of the comedy troupe’s feature films (recalling the sequences from THE HOLY GRAIL, most notably), there is no denying that this is a bizarre kaleidoscope of a film, completely disjointed and lacking in cohesiveness (intentionally so).

Yet, there’s something strangely endearing about it. Co-directed by Bill Jones, Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson and presented in 3D – because, why not? – A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAHY takes the recordings of the titular Python reading his “biography” aloud shortly before his death in the late-1980s, then edits them into the film as narration and the main driving force of the story. Though not directly involved in the creative process of the film, nearly all of the remaining members of the troupe have contributed voice-work or some other element to the film.

So why isn’t the film funnier? Monty Python is one of the greatest comedy troupes to have ever graced the screen – big or small – but A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY is light on the laughs. Sure, there are plenty of chuckles to be had here and there throughout the film – namely because of Chapman’s pointed humor, which crackles throughout – but for the most part, there is a noticeable lack of spiritual channeling of the classic Python humor that one hopes to get from the film. The directors give it their all in making the film reverently faithful to that spirit, but most of the laughs come from things which are out of their hands – like Chapman’s 25-year-old narration.

Still, there’s a lot to like in A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY. The varied animation styles (there are something like 17 different aesthetic forms, and they weave in and out of one another with absolutely no warning) are quite striking, and many of them are downright beautiful. The 3D is entirely serviceable, even though it’s obviously used only for gimmicky and comedic purposes. Chapman’s narration is both funny and heartfelt, not to mention incredibly intelligent; his references to Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (the doctor is voiced in one scene by Cameron Diaz because, again, why not?) provide a context that seems missing from the first act of the film, and the bizarre imagery suddenly starts to coalesce into  a symbolic goldmine. It’s unexpected to say that a film like this may just demand a second viewing, but that may be the case here – there are simply too many visual motifs and symbolic references peppered throughout the film to get them all on a single try.

And Chapman’s story – buried under abstract metaphor or just plain old fabrication – is a sincere and moving exploration of a man coming to terms with his sexuality, his vices and his fame. It’s a highlight in a film that tends to be lacking in the belly-laughs department: a refreshingly dramatic tale of complex emotions, hidden behind a thin veil of absurdist humor and abstract imagery. The comedian’s perfectly twisted take on his own failure to come to grips with his homosexuality (or bisexuality? The film doesn’t make it clear – or, rather, it makes it intentionally ambiguous) is touching, and it helps keep the plot from meandering its way into irrelevance.

It’s clear from the get-go that Jones, Timlett and Simpson are all gigantic fans of Monty Python’s canon, and they do their very best to capture the essence of what made the absurdist troupe great. Unfortunately, A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN is ultimately a mixed bag: at its best a unique and creative Freudian interpretation of Chapman’s troubled life and at its worst a colossal missed opportunity.

6/10

d.a. garabedian