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Simon is a timid man, scratching out an isolated existence in an indifferent world. He is overlooked at work, scorned by his mother, and ignored by the woman of his dreams. He feels powerless to change any of these things. The arrival of a new co-worker, James, serves to upset the balance. James is both Simon's exact physical double and his opposite - confident, charismatic and good with women. To Simon's horror, James slowly starts taking over his life.
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First, this is a gifted film-maker, who doesn't want to play by the usual rules. Next, he knows how to get off to a great start, build a fascinating world, get you involved with his people, but third, he doesn't quite find ways to make his third acts pay off as interestingly (or powerfully or emotionally) as the first two-thirds of the film promise. In both films the focus drifts to less interesting elements or variations on the stories he's telling.
And last, he needs to lighten up on the too-obvious 'homage's to his cinematic touchstones. In "Submarine" it was (among others) Wes Anderson and "Rushmore". Here the overbearing influences (there are many) are led by Terry Gilliam's "Brazil". There were a large number of design and character choices – while effective - that came close enough that I couldn't help but sit there making comparisons ('Hey, there's Wallace Shawn doing Ian Holm'). And it starts to approach that fine line between inspiration and plagiarism.
That said, there's a lot to like here. The photography is often gorgeous. Jessie Eisenberg does a terrific job in a tough double role – a meek office worker who is suddenly faced with another employee who looks exactly like him. But the new guy has a brash, self-confident personality, everyone loves him, and no one else seems to notice the two are physically exactly alike, right down to their clothes.
This raises interesting questions about personality, perception and reality. Is "James Simon" (the cool one) merely a psychological projection of the nerd, "Simon James"? But if that's the case, why does everyone else interact with both, together and separately? Is it that Simon is the only one who thinks they look alike? i.e. is Simon projecting himself onto someone who – if we saw objectively – wouldn't even really look like him? Well, that would be an interesting idea, and a promising road for the film to explore, and it hints heavily at that possibility, only to simply drop and contradict it.
And that's part of why this is two-thirds of a great film, not a whole one. In the end things play out in a way that has been foreshadowed from early on, and suddenly the film feels less deep, less challenging, more an exercise in cinematic playfulness than an exploration of deeper themes both personal and societal. The head trip becomes too literal, the conclusions too simple for the complex surreal reality we've come to accept
On the plus side, the effects are terrific, and many of the best scenes in the film are Eisenberg talking to himself in one shot. (A hell of an acting challenge as well). And the film has a dark sense of humor that keeps the Kafkaesque world and 'big themes' from becoming ponderous, (Again, I just wish I had less often chuckled, but then thought 'hey, that just like the scene in 'Barton Fink…', or whatever).
In any case I look forward to whatever Ayoade does next, but I hope he will find a way to finish as strong as he starts, and to be brave enough to trust his own very good sense of style, and not borrow quite so much from others.
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