(2013) Thriller (Magnolia) Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Cathy Moriarty, Chris O’Dowd, Gemma Chan, Paddy Considine, James Fox, Rade Serbedzija, Yasmin Paige, Craig Roberts, Nathalie Cox, Christopher Morris, Tony Rohr, Susan Blommaert, Phyllis Somerville, J Mascis, Natalia Warner, Joanna Finata. Directed by Richard Ayoade
When we look into the mirror, we generally have a good idea at what we’re looking at. What if the face staring back at us, however, wasn’t necessarily our own?
Simon James (Eisenberg) is a cubicle drone for one of those big conglomerates whose purpose really isn’t necessarily apparent. It is run by a mythic figure known only as the Colonel (Fox) who rarely makes appearances but is deeply appreciated and loved by his workers. Simon’s immediate boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Shawn) can barely remember Simon’s name. In fact, he can’t.
In fact, nobody can. When Simon comes into work one day on the train, his briefcase carrying his ID and pretty much his entire life gets stuck in the doors of the train and is whisked away. The security guard at the front gate doesn’t recognize Simon and isn’t disposed to letting him in at first. Only Harris (Taylor) seems to have any idea that Simon actually works for.
Worse still, Simon pines away for Hannah (Wasikowska) who works the gigantic room-sized copier machine for the company. Too shy to actually ask her out, she is kind enough to him but again doesn’t seem to know that he is anything other than an occasional nuisance, asking for a single copy of a document when, as Hannah’s co-worker points out, the copy department is meant to make thousands of copies of large documents.
However, even this somewhat desperate life is threatened when a new employee arrives: James Simon is his name and he looks like an exact doppelganger of Simon. James is everything Simon is not – cool, confident, instantly memorable, manipulative and without conscience. A mirror image, if you will; reflecting the same person but in reverse. Simon is the only one who notices that James looks exactly like him.
James begins romancing Melanie (Paige), the boss’s daughter whom Simon had been attempting to train (although she is remarkably uninterested in learning anything). While James attempts to help Simon capture the woman of his dreams, it is James that Hannah falls for. It is also James who gets recognized for Simon’s accomplishment. Simon isn’t just fading into obscurity; his life is being usurped.
This played the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and was my favorite film to come out of it. It is based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the conceit of which wasn’t especially new even in Dostoevsky’s day. Still, it works as a modern parable of how our personality is more or less a reflection of how others see it – and when others don’t, we begin to fade into oblivion.
Ayoade, a British comedian who has appeared in such films as The Watch also directed Submarine, much of whose cast appears here in various roles and cameos. Like this film, his directing debut also had the subtext of the disconnect between who we are and who we think we are. Here he adopts a kind of retro-futuristic look that resembles the world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil set in a kind of postwar Soviet environment with recognizable modern technology in large, boxy and hideously inconvenient to use incarnations; personal computers have tiny screens on large grey shells that take up the entire wall of a cubicle, for example. Everything is grimy and dingy, like nobody has bothered to dust for decades. Even the diner that Simon patronizes looks distinctly unappealing, and you just know that any food served by the frowzy waitress Kiki (Moriarty) is going to be tasteless, bland and will probably give you the runs.
Eisenberg is one of those actors who can be dreadfully annoying with his nervous tics and stammering, the love child between Woody Allen and Hugh Grant, but when given the right kind of role, can hammer it out of the park. He seems to excel when given characters who aren’t entirely likable; the less likable, the better – Michael Cera has much the same issue in his career. This is one of Eisenberg’s best performances to date, one in which he plays both the nebbish and the morally bankrupt hipster. Both are personas that he has done before.
The movie is darkly funny with a weird sense of humor that once in awhile comes at you from oblique angles and causes you to laugh not just because the situation is funny but because you didn’t expect it even for a moment. In fact, you are never quite sure where the movie is going, but are content and even eager to let it get you there. That’s the kind of movie that most stimulates me not only as a critic but as a moviegoer.
This isn’t likely to get a good deal of exposure. It’s certainly not a movie that’s for everyone. It is very bleak in places which you would expect from a film based on something written by a Russian writer. However, that bleakness is offset by the cheerfully warped humor and Eisenberg’s dual performance. Mainstream audiences will probably want to give this a pass but if you love movies as much as I do, it is one that you should put on your must-see list.
REASONS TO GO: Wonderful set design and atmosphere. Eisenberg at his neurotic best. Weird sense of humor.
REASONS TO STAY: A little twitchy in places. Not for everybody.
FAMILY VALUES: Enough foul language to garner an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there are several other films with the same title, this is the first to be based on the Dostoevsky short story that bears its name (the Stanley Kubrick film The Partner is also loosely based on the novella).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Winter in the Blood