Essential to the whole medium of workplace comedy is the inspiring idea that our own daily drudgery can somehow be transcended. Films and television programs such as Office Space, BBC’s The Office (and its rejigged NBC import) and Workaholics establish a comic framework of suffocating interoffice toil while introducing the long-suffering hero(es) who may rise above it. Both versions of The Office offer this champion in the characters of Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman) and Jim Halpert (John Krasinski): white-collar salesmen who smirk and mug for the mockumentary camera crew, gestures that presume a viewer who will appreciate the characters’ ability to weather the cartoonish incompetence of their bungling bosses and co-workers.
Other workplace comedies set up similar escapes: In Office Space, the weary wage slaves exorcise their pent-up aggression beating a terminally malfunctioning photocopier to smithereens; Workaholics presents its trio of stoner call-centre jockeys with all manner of opportunity for afterwork hijinks. In Terry Gilliam’s seminal sci-fi dystopia, Brazil, Jonathan Pryce’s low-level government employee daydreams of rescuing a damsel in distress from a gigantic samurai warrior representing the juggernaut of office bureaucracy.
But what if there were no exterior? No daydreams to flee inside of? No hope of a camera to mug at? What if the drudgery of working life was relieved only by the drudgery of private life, by pestering phone calls from mother, by surly waitresses informing you that you can’t even get the Coke you ordered?
Such is the dystopia of The Double, writer/director Richard Ayoade’s contemporary meditation on the Dostoevsky novella of the same name. The film’s bleakness is almost satirical. It’s Brazil drained of the daydreams.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a seven-year veteran at some massive bureaucracy, fiddling away at a computer terminal processing data all day. After work, he tends to his overbearing Ma (Phyllis Somerville) and leers out over his smoggy, entirely characterless neighbourhood through a telescope. Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, Simon’s voyeurism is a product of his immobility: not of a physical crippling as in Hitchcock’s picture, but of an emotional-existential hobbling. “It’s like I’m permanently outside myself,” he says. “Like you could push your hands straight through me if you wanted to.”
Ayoade drives home Simon’s drifting meaninglessness early on: shooting him on a subway car framed by greasy plastic glass to make him seem translucent and ghostly; even having a co-worker (Paddy Considine) call him a “bit of a non-person.” Another workmate is even more to the point, pressing Simon on how he has managed to not kill himself. (Suicide is itself boringly de rigueur in The Double’s wan world, with two police detectives barely able to keep up with all the fatal plunges and other self-administered offings within Simon’s confined neighbourhood.)
What pantomime of personhood Simon does enjoy is undermined by the arrival of James Simon (Eisenberg again), an unctuous wheeler-dealer brought in to join the miserable office environment following a “vital cull” at another branch. James immediately wins friends at the bureau, glad-handing as he bounds up the corporate ladder, making swaggering advances at Simon’s unrequited crush, the (cliché of clichés) pretty-plain girl across the way (Mia Wasikowska). He cockily orders breakfast at suppertime, like Jack Nicholson boldly going off-menu in that icono-classic of American cinema, Five Easy Pieces. “She’s a waitress,” James reasons, “She’s here to serve us. If we don’t tell her what we actually want, how can she do her job?”
James exists as an exploded version of such characters as The Office’s Tim/Jim and Workaholics’ bong-ripping schemers. He bends boredom to his will. He bucks the proposition that life need be suffocating misery. He sees the demands the world makes of him and, like Melville’s Bartleby, smirks, “I would prefer not to.” So what does it say about The Double, and about the whole canon of workplace drama, that James is the villain, that his ease with himself and ability to nimbly navigate the bland horror of day-to-day life registers as a kind of sociopathy?
In his posthumous novel The Pale King, described by its author as a “portrait of bureaucracy,” David Foster Wallace engaged head-on with the monotony of existence, indexing the lives and quiet fascinations of a group of IRS employees. In it, he describes “the key to modern life” as being able to trump boredom, to develop a hardened calcification against the lapping tides of the rote and mundane. “If you are immune to boredom,” he writes, “there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”
The Double’s charismatic greaseball James is contemptible because he has merely hot-wired life’s triviality, instead of developing immunity to it. He’s all id: a creature unfettered by the social world’s expectations, his total freedom and pursuit of gratification revealed as cruel and antisocial, as he begins to replace the fretful, buttoned-down Simon as if just for the sake of it. By comparison, Simon’s quest to merely reclaim his own subjecthood may seem boring – even depressing. But it’s far more honourable, a strike back against the forces that wrested him from his individuality.
Against The Double’s decentred dystopia of white-collar duty and sprawling bureaucracy, Ayoade floats nothing as wrongheadedly optimistic as some lame carpe diem message. Instead, he offers a simpler proposition, most clearly expressed as Simon’s sense of cosmic self-persecution becomes validated. In the face of a mob of co-workers bearing down on him, Simon insists, “I am a person. I exist.”
Ah bureaucracy. Ah humanity.