In only his second directorial effort on a feature film, Richard Ayoade has managed to surpass the assured hand of his whimsically sharp debut film Submarine and create a completely engrossing world about the absurdist foibles of identity and love with The Double. Adapted from—surprisingly—a Dostoyevsky novella and co-written by Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother), Ayoade’s film is about Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a lowly government clerk stuck in a bureaucratic dead-end in a nocturnally ominous dystopian nowhere who pines after his equally forlorn but irrevocably spunky colleague Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), and who one day is surprised to notice an exact doppleganger named James Simon (also played by Eisenberg) working in his office without anybody seeming to notice.
Whereas Simon’s subdued outcast represents the Freudian Ego, James is the unrestrained and outwardly successful Id. Ayoade’s keen sense of wit and deft direction lifts this psychologically dark comedy above other sophomore efforts and cements him as a multi-faceted talent to remain watching out for.
Ayoade populates his schizophrenic tale of two of the same person in a skewed analog future of bulking computers and hopelessly creeky technology, as if somebody in a Communist country in the ‘50s predicted what an overly tactile future would look like and got it completely wrong. Its pencil-pushing drabness recalls the design and demented irony of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or David Lynch’s Eraserhead, while the film’s main central conceit explicitly recalls other literary precedents besides Dostoyevsky like Kafka or Gogol. The weighty influences and philosophical implications may sound off-putting to some, but Ayoade and his actors find loads of humor within the awkward chaos of the absurd, especially when the titular double shows up and turns Simon’s world upside down.
Eisenberg—our modern equivalent of the twitchy yet controlled enigma of someone like Dustin Hoffman—is able to pull off the two distinct halves of the same person with a jocular ease, sometimes playing tragicomic beats so well against himself as Simon and James in the same scene that it’s easy to forget he’s the same actor. At times Mia Wasikowska approaches falling into the normal Manic Pixie Dream Girl traps, and one could say that her character is slightly underwritten, but skeptics would be hard pressed not to admit that she’s the soul of the film and projects a sunny exuberance throughout a film that is quite effectively shot completely at night.
The rest of the charmingly unconventional cast features cameos and appearances by nearly everyone who was in Submarine (Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Yasmin Paige, Craig Roberts, Paddy Considine), and is rounded out by new and old additions to Ayoade’s idiosyncratic troupe (Chris O’Dowd, Chris Morris, Wallace Shawn, Phyllis Somerville, Cathy Moriarty, and James Fox). It’s a testament to Ayoade’s ability as a director that all of the actors seem like essential pieces to the Kafkaesque whole, and add to the uncanny nature of the story’s inherent comedy and weirdness.
If you know who Richard Ayoade is then you know he’s a bit of a renaissance man. As an actor, writer, and director he’s been able to stretch his experience via television, music videos, and most importantly his films. It’s behind the camera where he seems to be most comfortable, and that’s evident throughout The Double because of the way that it settles into its own self-confident mode. It’s consciously in a dialogue with its influences to make something conversely unique, which is a theme that works for the film itself, the characters within in, and for Ayoade himself. He can basically do it all, and do it all very well in his own way, and the only trajectory I see for him is to keep being his delightfully unique self. If that happens, we’re in for some truly special cinema.