When Richard Ayoade arrived in 2010 with his charming tale of adolescence and young romance with the stylish “Submarine,” the picture was immediately greeted with rather reductive comparisons to Wes Anderson. It was an unfair assessment levelled at the movie and filmmaker—even from those who championed the film—that diminished what an accomplished piece of cinema Ayoade had put together. And one can’t help but wonder if “The Double” is a sly response to those criticisms of borrowing from others. Certainly, his latest will invoke names like Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry to be tossed around, but make no mistake: not only does “The Double” confirm Ayoade as one of the brightest rising talents behind the camera, it’s completely his own and unlike anything you’ve seen in cinemas in quite some time.
Based on the novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the story follows the meek and awkward Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a white collar drone working for an unnamed company as a data processor. He’s seen as a potential rising star by his boss (a wonderfully energetic Wallace Shawn), even though he calls him Stanley, and has modest aspirations of moving up the corporate ladder by one day impressing the head honcho, The Colonel (James Fox), with one of his reports. Meanwhile, he’s got one eye on Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) who works in another department—and also happens to live in the apartment building opposite his—but he can’t work up the courage to ask her out. But overall, his life is that of dull drab routine, where he’s barely recognized at work, ignored by Hannah and nearly resented by his mother who resides in an assisted living facility.
“I’m like Pinocchio. I’m a woody boy, not a real boy. It kills me,” Simon confesses, but soon he’ll be fighting for the genuine self that he didn’t know he had. One day, James Simon arrives at the office, and simply put: he’s an exact double of Simon. Granted, no one else seems to notice, but Simon does and at first he’s merely amazed by their striking physical similarity. And, that’s where the parallels end. Confident and commanding, James possesses the personality Simon wishes he had, and they both know it. Soon enough, James starts encroaching on Simon’s life, taking credit for his work, going after his girl and grabbing the successes and promotions Simon has been quietly striving toward. But as Simon begins to battle back, no one believes his story and he’s slowly pushed to the brink of madness.
If this sounds surreal and absurd, that’s because it is, and Ayoade, instead of playing it real, rewardingly embraces the oddity of the story. The films boasts some fantastic production design courtesy of David Crank (“The Master“) that manages the feat of transmitting the utter tedium of Simon’s workplace by making it creative and interesting. Taking place in a uniquely detailed world, computers look like they’re housed in the husk of an Airstream, and everything seems to be moved by dials, switches and levers. The cinematography by Erik Wilson (“Tyrannosaur,” “Submarine”) evokes ’50s noir with lots of smoke, shadows, grit and minimal lighting, with everything coming together in a fully realized setting that is wholly original and a lot of fun to take in.
As Ayoade proved with his debut, he’s got a wonderful eye for framing, and he doesn’t waste an inch here, teaming with Wilson to create some truly striking scenes. And narratively, “The Double” matches its visual consistency with a narrative rhythm that is utterly engaging. Parallel imagery, repeated shots, incredible sound design (the thrum of white noise never sounded this good) and almost musical editing come together beautifully to perfectly depict the life of Simon James as it comes apart piece by piece. (A special note also has to go out to Andrew Hewitt‘s truly standout score.)
But none of this works without a story that goes beyond the mere the gimmick of someone discovering their (evil) doppelganger. With a story conceived by Avi Korine (yes, Harmony’s brother) and co-written alongside Ayoade, the pair not only manage to take the premise in some fascinating directions, they give it an emotional and thematic pull that is surprisingly weighty for this sort of picture, that could easily just exist as an exercise in aesthetics. “The Double” makes some rather interesting (and sure, sometimes fairly obvious and too direct) points about how easy it can be to lose one’s sense of individuality, particularly through a willing passivity to someone else’s goals. It’s not exactly deep or profound, but will strike a chord for anyone stuck in an unsatisfying job, or merely finding excuses not to do something to make their personal or professional goals a reality.
And helping to tie together the sometimes bizarre and audacious story is Jesse Eisenberg, giving two excellent performances as Simon and James. While it doesn’t take the actor out of his comfort zone, these parts allow him to find new notes to both his trademark on screen personas: that of the perpetually inept and bumbling young adult, and the slick, asshole-ish, smooth operator he first presented in “The Social Network.” And moreover, he makes both not just distinct and fully formed (when he barges in as James, it’s like another actor has entered the movie) but compelling too, with Eisenberg on screen for nearly every moment of the film. And around Eisenberg is a great array of support, with nice turns in small roles from Cathy Moriarty (who is particularly enjoyable), Yasmin Page and Noah Taylor that add strong sharp corners, to the carefully constructed box of the movie.
Granted there are some minor flaws here and there—one particular late cameo is jarring and tonally out of sync with the rest of the movie—but we can’t remember the last film that strode on the screen so boldly with a promise to present something totally different, and delivering so completely. Whether or not Ayoade felt his own creative personality slipping away by the phantom presence of Anderson when “Submarine” came out, perhaps we’ll never know, but “The Double” makes no doubt that he’s got his own voice and vision. Totally bonkers, hilarious and wickedly clever, “The Double” is special and singular filmmaking at its best. [A-]