The doppelganger, the clone, the sinister other, the evil twin – real or imagined – has been a seductive notion for writers going back generations.
Probably the most famous literary example is Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella The Double, about a government clerk who’s driven to a breakdown by the lookalike who usurps him.
It’s an endlessly adaptable idea. Dostoevsky’s tale was given a modern-day retelling as recently as 2013 in Richard Ayoade’s film of the same name, starring Jesse Eisenberg.
It has been played for lightweight laughs in the Michael Keaton comedy Multiplicity, about a man who creates multiple clones of himself that eventually make his already busy life even more complicated, and in a Halloween episode of The Simpsons in which Homer discovers a magic hammock that spins out even dumber versions of himself.
The possibilities for existential horror were best exploited in Anthony Armstrong’s 1940 novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham, which was filmed twice: first as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955 and later as the 1970 British cult classic The Man Who Haunted Himself, featuring a superb, deeply affecting performance by Roger Moore (always a better actor than he let on).
It’s difficult to say where the Netflix eight-parter Living with Yourself, created by Timothy Greenberg and starring Paul Rudd and Aisling Bea, fits in to the pantheon of stories about doubles, because it’s hard to pin down exactly what it’s trying to be.
It’s billed as a comedy, yet what gags there are come thin and slow and raise at best a smile when there should be hearty laughs.
Comedy-drama would probably be a more accurate description, though the script barely scratches the surface of the dramatic possibilities presented by the story of a man faced with a clone of himself who’s exactly the same in every way but one – he’s far more successful at being him than he is.
Comparisons have been made with Living with Yourself and Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
While it’s true that the two of them share the same lo-fi approach to the science fiction-ish elements of their plot, it’s surprising how little Living with Yourself makes of the material.
For such a high-concept series, it aims remarkably low.
Rudd plays Miles, a jaded, burned-out man who’s failing at everything: his job with an advertising firm, his relationship with his wife Kate (Bea), who wants a baby but can’t get Miles to commit to fertility treatment, and even his attempts to finish a screenplay he’s been working on for years.
When we first meet Miles he’s clawing his way out of a grave, wrapped in cellophane and wearing a nappy. Then we flash back to how he got to be in this predicament.
On the advice of a junior colleague, a former sad sack whose career has taken a dramatic upturn, Miles cleans the $50,000 out of his and Kate’s bank account and books a treatment at the Top Happy Spa, a seedy-looking (at least on the outside) establishment located at a rundown strip mall and run by two Chinese clinicians.
While the details of the treatment are kept deliberately fuzzy, the idea is that the old Miles will die and be replaced by a new, better clone who retains all his old memories and experience but will be better equipped to make the most of his life.
Miles, of course, is unaware of all this, so he’s understandably freaked out when, after the treatment somehow goes wrong he wakes up alive and is confronted by this superior version of him.
Inevitably, Kate finds out what has happened and the dilemma becomes how she and the two iterations of Miles are going to handle the situation.
I’ve watched five episodes of Living with Yourself and I’ll watch the remainder to see how it pans out. So far, though, it’s a disappointment that’s considerably less than the sum of its halves.
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