Richard Ayode’s The Double is a curiosity. Loosely based on the Dostoyevsky novella of the same name, the film combines the industrial aesthetics of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the Kafkaesque nature of the Coens’ Barton Fink with the quirky tone and humor of Wes Anderson pictures. Yes, it’s just as strange as it sounds but equally intriguing because of it.
Set in an Orwellian universe of claustrophobic and dimly-lit offices rife with 70s-80s-era technology, the crux of the tale revolves around one Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a neurotic, shy and pathetically insecure data analyst who keeps suffering from one mishap after the next. Dressed perpetually in an over-sized dusty grey suit, Simon is a tragically lonely fellow who spends evenings in his micro apartment spying on his neighbor and office colleague Hannah (Mia Wasikowska).
Things aren’t promising at work either. It’s bad enough that most of his colleagues, including his boss (Wallace Shawn), can’t recognize him, but when a new employee named James Simon who looks exactly like him shows up at the office, things take a turn for the truly bizarre. In a stranger twist, no one at work seems to notice that the two men are doppelgangers. Worse, James is everything Simon isn’t: confident, assertive, popular, and a dynamo with women. Initially, the two are friendly – James helps Simon with his issues, including scoring a date with Hannah, in exchange for Simon’s help with all his office work. But James has something malicious up his sleeve and when Simon finally realizes this, he tries to fight back. But who’s going to believe him, or even notice him?
I haven’t seen Richard Ayode’s debut feature Submarine so I’m not in the position to make any comparisons. I am, however, in the position to judge ambition – and Ayode’s got plenty of it. It’s one thing to adapt a classic Dostoyevsky novella; it’s another to take that novel and turn it into a quirky comedy while also successfully examining the nature of individualism and its place in a society driven by conformism. It’s hefty stuff, but concurrently, not exactly either.
A gifted visualist, Ayode seasons the film with plenty of visual and aural motifs to accentuate the mood. The dingy, claustrophobic sets give the story its hapless, dystopian aura while the offbeat use of sounds – the drumming of metal, the beeps of modems, the pings of printing machines, the whoosh of water flowing through pipes – at key moments in the picture is a wholly original way to get the audience to identify with Simon’s neurosis.
Eisenberg, who tends to get typecast playing neurotic characters, is reliably terrific in the dual roles of Simon and James. Despite the characters sharing the same face and style, down to the color of their socks, the actor is able to make us differentiate between the two. He simultaneously makes us root for Simon and sneer at James – no easy task. The only place where The Double fails to materialize is its climax – it’s a little too rushed, too morbid even – yet the bulk of Ayode’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Avi Korine) is so sharp, funny and thematically rich that the movie leaves you intrigued about the meaning of it all rather than unfulfilled and disappointed. And at a brisk 88 minutes, it never outstays its welcome.