A Kafkaesque nightmare loosely adapted from the Dostoyevsky novel, Richard Ayoade’s The Double creates a wonderfully bleak worldview filled with devilishly ironic circumstance, but a chilly-cool demeanor and thin connection to any kind of reality might make it difficult for audience members to connect to it. This is one that plays by its own rules.
Director Ayoade, who many know as Moss from The IT Crowd, previously made the quirky Wes Anderson-ish indie drama Submarine back in 2010, is painting in a completely different landscape in his second feature, which he co-wrote with Avi Korine (brother of Harmony, of Spring Breakers fame). The Double is bleak, moody, and even unsettling, even though it never loses its comedic bite.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Simon James, an unremarkable office drone at an unnamed company whose bad luck is compounded by an unending bureaucracy. After six years working at the firm, no one seems to recognize who he is; not the security guard (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) who forces him to sign in every day, nor the boss (Wallace Shawn) who assigns him to look after his gloomy teenage daughter (Yasmin Paige).
There is one bright light in Simon’s otherwise unendurable situation: copy girl Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who he spies on through a telescope from across the street. Simon is too shy to talk to her, but after witnessing a very prophetic suicide, he takes a leap of faith.
Just when things couldn’t get any worse, Simon is thrown for a loop by the appearance of his exact double, James Simon (also played by Eisenberg), who is, personality-wise, Simon’s complete opposite: extroverted and friendly, James cuts right through all the bureaucratic bullshit to get exactly what he wants. Including Hannah.
Now, while Simon and James look (and dress) exactly alike, none of the other characters seem to notice. Or even care, as Simon discovers when he presses a colleague (Noah Taylor) to have a look. Others seem to be able to tell them apart quite easily, except when the script requires them to swap places. But not a whole lot in The Double comes to make much rational sense, which is the one real drawback here: set in a world we struggle to fully comprehend, it’s difficult to drum up much sympathy for Simon’s plight.
Still, this nightmare noir vision is something to behold: set in an unspecified time (the fashion and technology might suggest the 1960s) in an unspecified city, it’s so out-there bizarre that it might as well be taking place on another planet. Erik Wilson’s stark, inky-black cinematography is one of the film’s strongest aspects, while Andrew Hewitt’s riveting original score also adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.
The eclectic cast features most of the gang from Submarine: in addition to Paige and Taylor, Sally Hawkins, and Craig Roberts feature in memorable cameos, while Paddy Considine stars as the lead in a cheesy sci-fi show that’s always on TV.
Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull) shows up as Simon’s mother, and James Fox is the eccentric Colonel, owner(?) of the company he works for; but best of all is Christopher Morris (Brass Eye) as the cherry on top of the vicious bureaucratic cycle. Ayoade’s IT Crowd co-star Chris O’Dowd also cameos as a nurse.
While the original novella is generally regarded as lesser Dostoyevsky (the author himself considered it a failure), Vladimir Nabokov (not the biggest fan) called it “the best thing he ever wrote.” Ayoade’s film (like its source) may not be a wholly satisfying drama, but it’s a striking and provocative work open to multiple interpretations.