Director Richard Ayoade has already proven with his first feature Submarine a skill for literary adaptation, a skill for setting distinct and palpable tones, a skill for creating offbeat, but endearing characters who say and do things that are at once fascinating, entertaining, and vaguely disconcerting. With his latest movie, The Double, the British filmmaker (son of a Norwegian mother and Nigerian father) has sharpened those skills to a point, crafting a cinematic world that is even more distinct and more disconcerting than his first venture.
Based, after a fashion, on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, the film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon, a hapless young man who lives an invisible life. He works hard at a data entry company where no one seems to really notice that he exists, including beautiful young manic pixie Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) who he’s obsessed with – at night, he watches her in the apartment complex directly across from his through a telescope.
The drudgery and quiet melancholy of his life is interrupted, though, with the arrival of a new employee at work, James. Confident, charming, and aggressive, James is everything that Simon wants to but simply cannot be: a real boy. He also, as it happens, looks exactly like Simon, down to a marvelously ill-shapen gray suit. As James begins to dominate Simon’s life, he must make a choice between disappearing or finally becoming a real boy.
It’s a striking take on the doppelgänger story, and while Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine’s script does have some conventions and inevitabilities, the bizarre ways people in their world speak and behave and relate to one another is endlessly amusing. What’s most surprising about the film is the way it so deftly finds a balance between humor and a subtle kind of horror, between the mundane and the extraordinary. It’s a genuinely, consistently funny film, which makes its darker elements satisfyingly unsettling.
The main pleasures are its visual tones and its great, quirky cast, with Eisenberg as a standout. Compared to Michael Cera early on in his career, Eisenberg has gradually proven that despite his own personal idiosyncrasies he does have a kind of range. In other words, this is not a Youth in Revolt situation, where the actor is so determined to play the more brash James character against “type” that the performance comes off like a bad caricature.
The important distinction that he makes is that James is not necessarily a better version than Simon, indeed in a lot of ways he is worse. But he decisive, he makes choices, and that manifests itself even in the physicality of the character with fluid, determined gestures. There’s a scene early on where the two Eisenberg’s walk silently down a hall side-by-side and, impressively, the little sequence is all that’s needed to understand what makes the two characters inherently different people.
It’s the strange, silent little moments in the movie that make its bleak, eerily dream-like world so absorbing. Shots of Simon retreating inside himself while riding the the train to work, Wasikowska’s Hannah staring wordlessly at him during a long elevator ride. In many ways the movie is a kind of homage to directors well-versed with the kind of themes explored. Simon’s voyeuristic spying on the apartments across the way clearly conjure up elements of Hitchcock. The constant hum of industrial noises, the stark concrete landscapes with long shadows and muted greys, are deliberately reminiscent of Lynch’s Eraserhead. And yet, these nods don’t feel forced or contrived, but natural integrations into Ayoade’s vision at large.
While the movie ends with perhaps too convenient a final act, absolving Simon of his nice guy self-pity which it earlier calls out, it’s mostly successful in what it sets out to do. Ayoade’s world, this weird alternate universe at once retro and strangely futuristic, fantastic yet grounded in the gritty reality of the urban landscape, is a surprising but refreshing second feature after the charming but slightly more typical Submarine.
If The Double is any indication, Ayoade has more to offer as a filmmaker than expected.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.