I've now seen two films by the talented Ayodade the other being his
coming of age 'Submarine" - and had a very similar reaction though they
are miles apart in style, story and theme.
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
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.