Life of the party

Life of the party

Gia Coppola is more interested in understanding than sending up her teen characters in ‘Palo Alto,’ while Richard Ayoade brings little new to an old narrative in ‘The Double’

By Michael Nordine 05/08/2014

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The wayward teenagers of “Palo Alto” are outwardly vacuous, but never without the sense that they're yearning for more on some deeper level that they might not even know is there. Directed by Gia Coppola from a short story collection by James Franco, who also features as a soccer coach with questionable intentions toward one of his players, it focuses on a cross-section of teens whose world of privilege is so insular that few seem to even wonder whether there might be something beyond its pearly gates. 

Scenes are clipped in a way that mirrors their short attention spans and general indifference toward nearly everything other than their frequent parties, which quickly puts us in a similar mindset. Since they’re still in high school, it might actually sound like a compliment to say that their conversations (most of which take place in altered states) amount to dorm-room philosophizing: “What if I don’t think there’s a reason for something happening?” the most thoughtful of them (a very good Emma Roberts) asks; later, a loose cannon will ask his friend what he’d do if he found himself in ancient Egypt.

That Coppola never looks down on her ennui-stricken characters, whose emotional maturity has yet to catch up with their party-oriented lifestyle, makes it easy for us to not condescend to them either. This would be a satire in the hands of many other filmmakers, but Coppola is more interested in understanding her characters than in sending them up. Ditto Autumn Durald’s sensitive photography, which emphasizes how dreamlike the latter years of high school can be both in the moment and in hindsight — “Palo Alto” takes place in a beautiful but off-putting fog. The often self-destructive manner in which they express their nascent disillusionment may not be universal — one would venture to guess that most people’s experiences are much more mundane — but the feelings themselves certainly are.

“The Double” is based on a Dostoevsky novella, but Richard Ayoade’s adaptation feels more in line with Kafka. About an endlessly ineffectual man named Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) whose oppressive work environment is made more so by the sudden appearance of a much more assertive doppelgänger, the entire film takes place indoors or at night. As in his grating “Submarine,” Ayoade is a woefully unsubtle stylist: every aesthetic element is turned up to 11, and most of them are misguided and distracting. The doppelgänger concept is an old one, and the co-writer/director brings no new ideas to it — just a lot of sonic and visual noise (industrial droning, constant cling-clanging) that subsumes, rather than serves, the boilerplate story being told.

Ayoade has clearly seen a lot of good movies — traces of “Monsieur Hire,” “Dead Ringers,” and David Lynch can all be felt here — but in trying to emulate them he comes across as giving less thought to what he’s presenting than to how he’s presenting it. Every character feels like a projection of Simon’s fractured psyche, his double most of all, but exploring that troubled headspace for a full 90 minutes doesn’t prove rewarding. Nobody seems to notice or acknowledge the fact that the two are literally identical because, as one of Simon's co-workers puts it, he's “not very noticeable — a bit of a non-person.” “The Double” feels like a non-film, and the Pyrrhic victory with which it ends is a relief for protagonist and audience alike.

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