“The Double” is based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but there’s a lot more than the sensibilities of the Russian literary giant hanging over this grimly amusing picture. British director and comedian Richard Ayoade’s follow-up to his stylized coming-of-age tale “Submarine,” the abstract drama owes an obvious debt to “Brazil,” but also borrows liberally from the likes of “1984,” the labyrinthine plotting of a Kafka story and the outmoded aesthetics eighties computer commercials, while maintaining a deadpan stillness that calls to mind Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. Yet the familiar elements of “The Double,” which Ayoade co-wrote with Avi Korine, coalesce into a unique whole that turns the material into a contemplative nightmare.
In his strangest performance to date, Jesse Eisenberg plays two characters, although it’s hard to tell if one of them really exists. He’s first seen as Simon, a characteristically neurotic and shy office worker trapped in a murky Orwellian world that mainly involves his deadbeat office job and his isolated life in an apartment building, where he lives with his cantankerous space cadet of a mother (Phyllis Somerville). Simon’s awful work routine takes place in a drab setting that looks like it was lifted out of the Jazz Age and strung through an old school science fiction filter: Trapped in his gold-and-brown-hued cubicle, he crunches numbers for some unspecified statistical purposes while coping with constant degradation from his harsh overseer Mr. Papadopoulos, played by Wallace Shawn with a collection of whiny bureaucratic rants that make it clear only he can play the role.
Shawn’s character isn’t the only archetype populating Simon’s world: The Colonel (James Fox), this particular shadowy dystopia’s resident Big Brother, beams down at the office workers from every available monitor to remind them of their insignificance. The only vaguely sympathetic face in Simon’s deadbeat existence is Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the melancholic neighbor across the street whom he routinely crushes on and spies at through his telescope. Just when it seems like Simon’s world can’t get any more afflicting, Papadopoulos hires a new employee named James and instantly declares him the star of the office. And he looks identical to Simon.
Cinematographer Erik Wilson captures the expressionistic claustrophobia of this scenario with heavy dark patches that dominate the halls and alleyways surrounding Simon’s world — it’s always nighttime and the streets are filled with fog — while punctuating the inky palette with neon blues and reds that occasionally brighten up the scene to reflect Simon’s undulating disposition. In tune with the visuals, Eisenberg’s typically nervous tics take on a more somber, introspective quality than usual, calling to mind the similarly meta aspects of Adam Sandler’s turn in “Punch Drunk Love.” Simon inhabits a world of mockery that initially seems funny until it turns crushingly downbeat. In the first scene, he’s forced out of his subway seat by a faceless individual despite the two of them populating an empty train car. That’s the essence of Simon’s life in scene after scene: He’s the subject of derision from everyone around him for no good reason other than his inability to fight back.
A semblance of hope arrives with Simon’s double, James, a wry, fast-talking womanizer who manages to achieve everything Simon can’t: He ably seduces women and receives unearned praise for his work from Papadopoulos. Rather than question James’ origins, however, Simon merely follows the man and hesitantly befriends him, hoping to absorb some of his skills. The sight of the two men together and dressed identically creates the sense that they might represent two sides of the same personality — which isn’t not a spoiler so much as a description of the crucial ingredient that differentiates “The Double” from the gloomy formulas it calls to mind. Unlike “Brazil” or “1984,” there’s no broad mythological dimension that surrounds Simon’s experiences. The movie has a sustained feeling of containment, as if we’re trapped in Simon’s mind along with all of his hesitations and regrets for the duration of the running time.
Leaving the details of the universe vague, Ayoade foregrounds its absurd details. At the local diner, Simon is routinely served a strange blue liquid in place of the orange juice he desires. Witnessing a restaurant feud between two characters, the other patrons inadvertently burst into applause as confetti reigns down. Police officers interrogating James about a suicide he witnesses give him a playful multiple choice quiz about his own death wish. While sometimes too obviously clever in its use of symbolic devices, “The Double” sticks to its eccentric ways. In moments like these, Simon’s Job-like plight maintains a thematic clarity. “A person can get really sick of just floating by,” he says, which could easily serve as the movie’s tagline.
The Colonel’s televised slogan provides another assertion that would sound on-the-nose if it the mood didn’t earn it. “There’s no such thing as special people,” he announces with a smirk. “Only people.” That perspective turns “The Double” into a rumination on identity that finds Simon trapped in some kind of claustrophobic dream space. The story arrives at a satisfying emotional conclusion with wonderfully thoughtful ramifications: Whether or not he has the power to wake up from his crushing surroundings, Simon makes peace with his anonymity.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, “The Double” is likely to find a home with a distributor able to play up its genre ingredients and Eisenberg’s appeal. It has the potential to perform well in a limited nationwide release, though some buyers might be scared off by its strange, alienating qualities.