‘Dual’ Review: Riley Stearns’ Dark, Deadpan Doppelgänger Comedy Is A Misjudged Odd Duck [Sundance]

Sometimes you commit to a decision because it’s the one in your head, the one on the page, and it’s the north star you are aiming for. In filmmaker Riley Stearns‘ latest Sundance picture, the darkly comedic, intentionally strange, and off-kilter doppelgänger film, “Dual,” the intention is to be askew, left of center, and bizarrely funny. Another way to put it is Stearns is trying to make his version of a profoundly idiosyncratic Yorgos Lanthimos movie (“The Lobster” being the apparent parallel), where odd duck people behave eccentrically, performances walk a razor-thin tightrope tone of the unusual and peculiar, dry, deadpan laughs are the order of the day. Unfortunately, Stearns has not quite earned his “Greek Weird Wave” stripes—the Lanthimos’-inspired genre where political, cultural issues are subverted and skewered with oddball comedy—and his decision to commit to a flat, deadpan performance style (even when it’s clearly not working in several scenes) eventually flattens his film.

READ MORE: Sundance 2022 Preview: 20 Must-See Movies From The Festival

Set in the near future, that is still recognizable to today (much like “The Lobster”), “Dual” is set in a world where science has advanced far enough where we now have access to clones, “Replacement” technology as it’s known. So, when someone is dying, often in the case of premature death, a person can ease the impending pain of a family’s loss and purchase a clone to take their place after death.

Tapping the dark socioeconomic comedic possibilities of clones, the procedure is, of course, expensive, generally for the wealthy, and the high cost is incurred onto the clone after one has passed, leaving them like a slave to the debts that shackle so many Americans today. There is one wrinkle to it all, of course, which is portrayed rather strikingly in the film’s opening sequence (featuring Theo James in a small “Scream“-esque opening cameo), setting up the world of Replacements: if the “original” doesn’t die and the “double” fights the decision to be decommissioned via the “28th amendment,” they must ultimately duel to the death, a grim sport for capitalist entertainment.

Thus, in “Dual,” Karen Gillan (“Guardians Of The Galaxy“) plays Sarah, a young woman dying of a mysterious, incurable disease. Before her diagnosis, Sarah goes through the motions with a perfunctory relationship with her boyfriend (Beulah Koale). He seems disinterested; she seems overly eager, but also just a very bizarre and monotone person.

And in a film full of peculiar people, all behaving dispassionately, unemotionally, cold, and or flat, Sarah is the oddest of them all, seemingly on the autistic spectrum, and or acting mechanically, aloof and distant. While this deadpan style of performance is meant to exacerbate the offbeat humor—and occasionally it does— frequently, the spirit just misses the mark in a manner that feels painfully leaden (shot in Finland, much of the nameless supporting cast have oddly placed accents, differing from the main cast which adds to the overall sense of alien world displacement for better, thematically and for worse, in reality).

Facing a terminal disease, Sarah eventually turns to Replacement technology, purchasing a doppelgänger who is her exact double minus one aberration—blue eyes instead of brown. While the scientists apologize for this error and offer a meager 5% discount, it’s the tip-off that something here is amiss.

And so, as clones are wont to do in dark comedic dystopic dramas, Sarah Double begins to manipulatively insinuate herself into Sarah Original’s life without her permission, taking over her boyfriend with a submissive, eager-to-please attitude, and contacting her overbearing mother and pretending she is the original. As Sarah Original watches in horror as her life is infiltrated and subverted, she is met with conveniently timed news: her mysterious illness is in remission, she wants to decommission her clone and recapture her life.

None of that is straightforward, though, as her loved ones prefer the more welcoming and acquiescent Sarah Double, who, of course, immediately invokes her 28th amendment right to a “stay” of decommission. Lawyers soon get involved, setting the stage for the film’s double entendre’d title. Desperate to win and kill her double, Sarah enlists the service of a Duel specialist (Aaron Paul, interesting, but ultimately underused): a fight trainer aware of all duel-to-the-death rules who teach their subjects to survive and win these conflicts. This second half of the film is where it could potentially flourish, but the expressionless mien of the movie mostly enervates despite providing some of the occasional uncanny laughs.

To that end, “Dual” feels like it’s a pretty delicious read in script form, but in execution, it’s flat and begins to test one’s patience and tolerance of this particularly dry and poker-faced tone. Both Stearns and Gillan commit to the detached tenor. Still, it’s often more distant and isolating than it is funny, therefore leading to a movie that feels misjudged and far too remote, even for those well-versed and conversant in this weirdly lopsided style.

To be fair to its intentions, Stearns fared much better with his previous film, “The Art Of Self-Defense,” which was another similarly odd, dark comedy. But its boiling sense of anger, bitterness, and skewering of toxic masculinity worked wonders and felt like it had a point. “Dual” doesn’t have an equivalent anchor, and other than some of its light socioeconomic commentary about how cloning would work in a capitalistic society, it feels comparatively unmoored. Of course, it’s all intended to be a dark tragicomedy about the nature of existence, the “what if?” notion of our better selves, and the admonitory, “be careful what you wish for” idea that so many sci-fi cautionary tales try and tell. But “Dual,” especially in its final act, where it unintentionally telegraphs its big twist, just miscalculates enough throughout the film that by the end, it’s missed its intended mark, thus completely misplacing what should be its tragic comedy wallop ending. Considering its highwire act of tone, “Dual” is a film that has to be carefully calibrated. Ultimately, threading that Lanthimos needle is a lot more complicated than it looks, no matter the level of dedication. [C-]

Follow along with all our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.