BY STEVE ERICKSON | Music critic Simon Reynolds coined the term “retromania” to describe artists whose work draws entirely on the past. Singers like Adele and the late Amy Winehouse, whose music mimics R&B from 50 years ago, are perfect examples.
In cinema, there’s the endless procession of remakes of Hollywood horror and science fiction films. Even the relatively tolerable ones, like José Padilha’s “Robocop,” don’t exactly justify their existence. In Europe, a film like Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” which draws heavily on Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” is an arthouse example of the same phenomenon. The homages to French cinema in Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” are mostly pleasant, but his plagiarism of an entire scene from Leos Carax’s “Mauvais Sang” steps over the line.
British director Richard Ayoade’s “The Double” exhibits retromania in pilfering heavily from the low-tech sci-fi of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” with bits of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” thrown in. The film gives us a future that we’ve already seen. Its greatest pleasures come from its imaginative production design, but those pleasures would be greater if they weren’t so secondhand. “The Double” could be a described as a steampunk adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name. As in “Brazil,” it portrays office work as a demeaning bureaucracy; in comparison, the Clash’s “Career Opportunities” could be a temp agency recruitment song. The backgrounds are often literally filled with steam, while the color palette emphasizes dingy green and brown tones.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a geeky office clerk who toils away in a sinister government organization. At home, he watches a man commit suicide in the apartment building opposite his. His boss (Wallace Shawn) pays him little attention. Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who works in the copy room, also pays him little attention, although he thirsts for her affection.
Simon’s job is a dead end, and it gets worse when James Simon (also played by Eisenberg) begins working there. James looks exactly like Simon, but his personality is completely different. James has a way with women, in particular, that drives Simon mad. Soon, he dominates Simon’s life to the point where he demands a key to Simon’s apartment so he can have sex there.
In “The Double,” technology seems to have stopped in the ‘80s. The time frame is never stated, nor is the setting. The cast mixes American, Australian, and British actors, and Ayoade includes an eclectic range of cameos, including musician J. Mascis and Chris O’Dowd, his co-star from the TV show “The IT Crowd.” A video game looks so blocky and primitive that it could be played on the Atari 2600. Copy machines constantly break down. The subway never seems to actually get anywhere, but just reflects light and makes a lot of noise. The cinematography and production design emphasize an air of imminent decay.
“The Double” comes on the heels of Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy,” which also tells the story of a man who meets his lookalike. Indeed, critic Tony Pipolo wrote an article comparing the two films for Artforum magazine. It’s interesting that both films suggest that doubling would lead to sexual gamesmanship, with the less confident man losing out in the bedroom.
Even more than the history professor played by Jake Gyllenhaal in “Enemy,” Simon is a beta male. There’s something terribly schematic about Ayoade’s conception of Simon and James’ personalities. Simon’s nerdiness is sketched out a bit more thoroughly, but James is a cartoonish jerk who’s willing to get what he wants by bossing around women. It’s not the most imaginative dichotomy.
I don’t know whether Ayoade has much firsthand experience of boring office work, beyond having starred in a sitcom about it, but almost everything in “The Double” seems to come from other films. The problem with retromania here is that it shuts out life experience in favor of searching for just the right ugly shade of green. Amy Winehouse may have drawn on 50-year-old forms to sing about the battles with addiction that eventually killed her, but at least she wrote about her own life’s struggles in her biggest hit, “Rehab.” With Dostoevsky, Gilliam, and Lynch as suffocatingly large influences, there’s not much room in “The Double” for anything that speaks about the malaise of the moment.
THE DOUBLE | Directed by Richard Ayoade | Magnolia Pictures | Opens May 9 | Landmark Sunshine, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. | landmarkth