Having previously delighted festival audiences with his charming debut, Submarine, filmmaker Richard Ayoade again returns to the oddball indie fold with his deeply bizarre and incredibly entertaining The Double. Based on the Fyodor Dostoevsky novella of the same name – no, you wait right there, this isn’t your high school English class Dostoevsky, you’re going to have fun here – Ayoades’s second feature centers on timid office worker Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a man incapable of getting (or even asking for) anything he wants whose existence is forever changed by a new co-worker – one who looks just like him but acts in a completely opposite manner. James Simon (also played by Eisenberg, because duh) is a smirking go-getter, a ladies’ man, and a carouser who everyone adores. Simon can’t even get his company’s security guard to recognize him (and he’s worked there seven years).
Ayoades’s decision to place his film in a demented dystopia, equal parts Brazil, 1984, and 1950’s-inspired set dressing, is a brilliant one. By not grounding his film in reality, he is given immense freedom and his able to raise the “well, this ain’t believable” level quite high. We may never know where James came from (or where Simon came from, if you want to get philosophical here) or exactly how they’re linked, but the world they exist in is already so fantastic and primed for exploration that a simple thing like “oh, my doppelganger is trying to ruin my life” just doesn’t seem so damn hard to swallow.
Eisenberg excels in two very different roles, and it’s a credit to his work here that there is never a moment in The Double when it’s not exactly clear which version of the character we’re watching. Body language, posture, speaking cadence, facial expressions – everything Eisenberg does to differentiate between meek Simon and mirthful James is executed perfectly, and it’s one of the most interesting performance(s) he’s done in quite some time.
As the object of Simon’s affection (and, of course, a little bit of James’ attention), Mia Wasikowska vacillates between too obviously performing and letting gentle Hannah serve as little more than cipher for Simon’s desires. When she occasionally falls right in the middle of the two extremes, however, she’s lovely.
The film is suffused with almost constant sounds – amped up ambient noise, everyday aural backgrounds made deafeningly loud (especially footsteps, clocks, telephones, typewriters, and trains), and a purposely-overwrought score that is continuously cut obviously short for maximum amusement. The Double is so exuberantly theatrical and oddly energetic that it’s easy to imagine that, in the hands of another director and a less game leading man, it would only read as messy, mismanaged fluff.
Strangely and frequently amusing, Ayoade even uses elements of slapstick for a handful of scenes, and the result is a very funny, very lively film that should almost certainly not exist. Is there anything that sounds more dire than a dark dystopia-set adaptation of a Dostoevsky story that centers on the issues of identity and self-respect? It’s depressing just to think about, yet Ayoade turns this material into something frisky and funny that’s entirely its own (very weird) delight.
The Upside: A wonderfully inventive setting, unexpected humor, and two well-crafted and amusing turns by Jesse Eisenberg.
The Downside: Occasionally goes too deep into its own wackiness inventiveness, Noah Taylor and Wallace Shawn are criminally underused.
On the Side: Co-screenwriter Avi Korine only has one other credit – his brother Harmony’s fantastically weird and lovely Mister Lonely.