It's so refreshing to see a director fully embrace a story's quirks, to dive head on into the weirdness while pulling the audience under with him. Richard Ayoade's follow-up to the charming and under seen coming-of-age comedy Submarine turns out to be a surreal and bizarre update of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Double, and it's safe to say there aren't too many films like it anywhere.
The despairing, icy world Ayoade fashions would be the stuff of nightmares if it wasn't also absurdly humorous. That duality is also inherent in Jesse Eisenberg's performance as Simon James, a forgettable office worker in some sort of weird steampunk office in an indeterminate location in an indeterminate time. His workplace is retro yet like something from the Jetsons; it's all buttons, control panels, and clunky oversized machinery. Simon is seen as a rising star in the data processing business, although nobody seems to really know his name, especially not his boss (Wallace Shawn) or the security guard who can barely recognize his face. It's a depressingly rote existence of work, boring nights in his cramped apartment, and occasional visits to his mother at an assisted living home. Even she considers him a disappointment.
But if there's an oasis in the routine it comes from Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the office copy girl who seems to have some of the same issues as Simon. Both are struck by loneliness and emptiness, comparing themselves to Pinocchio. Simon's wish their fragile connection would turn into love is hamstrung by his introverted nature, but somebody else is ready to make the move he won't. Unfortunately, that person is his exact duplicate, a doppelganger named James Simon who shows up at work one day and turns the place upside down. He's the polar opposite of Simon in every way; the other workers love him, he's aggressively commanding and sexual towards women while lazy at his job. Worse, nobody notices how they look exactly alike. It isn't long before James starts getting the recognition Simon could never achieve, and even begins dating Hannah...along with a number of other women.
Simon is eventually compelled to try and reclaim his life, but of course nobody will listen to him, driving him further into paranoia and madness. The conflict within Simon is wonderfully captured by Eisenberg in a slight twist on his usual awkwardness, while he gets to show flexibility as the edgier James. He gets a lot of help from a terrific supporting cast of character actors. Wallace Shawn brings his usual pep as Simon's clueless boss, while Cathy Moriarty, Noah Taylor, and Paddy Considine (as a TV superhero!) and Submarine's Craig Roberts help round out this oddly-shaped little film. Wasikowska makes the most out of a fairly understated role, making you feel something for her quiet desperation, her yearning for a more exciting life that doesn't really seem possible for anybody.
In only his second feature, Ayoade has already established a unique visual flair, and he expresses the torment within Simon's soul in every single frame. Duality can be seen everywhere with Ayoade using parallel framing and the like to construct a claustrophobic yet engaging netherworld. Co-written by Ayoade and Avi Korine (that last name sound familiar? Yep, it's Harmony Korine's bro), the story leaps beyond a premise that could be its own worst enemy by presenting a bevy of ideas about the loss of one's sense of self. However, the script labors to make these ideas clear without dull, unnecessary exposition. It's the only thing that distracts from a bold and uncommon experience, one that established Ayoade as a filmmaker with a fresh, singular voice.