When one thinks of a piece of fiction being adapted in today’s modern film landscape, particularly when talking about a film starting its theatrical run at the beginning of spring, you’re more likely than not dealing with a new take on a character from a comic book universe. As we head into the start of the spring/summer film season, blockbusters are set to run roughshod over theaters around the world, but thankfully, some writers and directors are taking to classic literature still to mine for their ever impressive independent projects.
Only the second film from director Richard Ayoade, The Double is the beloved indie darling’s take on a rather influential novella of the same name from literary juggernaut Fyodor Dostoyevsky and finds the Submarine helmer teaming up with Avi Korine (yes, of that lineage) for what may be the year’s (or at the very least this summer film season’s) most original and breathtaking cinematic vision.
An absolute change of pace for Ayoade as a co-writer and full on director, The Double introduces us to a quiet and isolated man named Simon James, who is as about as definitively “alone” as one human could ever imagine to be. Stuck in a job where he feels invisible, seemingly despised by an ill mother and not nearly confident enough in himself to even dream of speaking to a person of the opposite sex, Simon is simply a man who repeatedly mentions how he relates to an entity like Pinocchio. However meek his life may be, he at least was able to keep relatively, only to have that change when a man named James Simon shows up and ruins all of that. Not only bearing an oddly similar name but a face that is ostensibly the exact same, the only difference between these two is the temperament, with James Simon being Simon James’ polar opposite. A ladies man, James Simon is a womanizing, self-important scumbag who seems to only exist on this earth to throw any and all monkey wrenches into the calm, if not all that rewarding, existence of Simon James.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg in the dual roles of Simon James and James Simon, he’s an absolute revelation here. Sure, he’s given us a handful of superb performances all the way dating back to the criminally underrated Roger Dodger, but rarely do we ever get to see an actor’s full range manifest itself in a single picture. As Simon, Eisenberg is a quiet and understated man, really playing at the film’s deft and bizarrely dense screenplay. Very much a script influenced by Dostoyevsky with a nice pinch of Kafka for good measure, the film, and Eisenberg’s performance, thrives in these moments as each word plays to the viewer’s ears like a breathless and quaint symphony of mood. As James Simon, he gets to really bask in his id. Taking on similar tropes that made his performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network truly one of this era’s defining performances, Eisenberg is instead able to fully realize both that character’s self-loathing melancholy and yet unquenchable self-importance in two entirely fleshed out and believable characters. A true triumph, these two performances.
Opposite him is Mia Wasikowska as Simon James’ “love interest,” aka Hannah, a neighbor for whom he is pining. One of a string of really great performances from the actress as of late, she is the unsung hero of the film here really allowing herself to feed off the energy of her top notch leading man. Toss in names like Wallace Shawn, Yasmin Paige and even the team of Craig Roberts and Jon Korkes as a pair of local detectives, and you have a supreme cast all working at the very height of their dramatic powers.
But the star here is easily Ayoade. As a rather vocal detractor of his unbearably twee debut feature Submarine, this could not be further from that insufferable picture. Drawing across the board comparisons to names like David Lynch and particularly Brazil-era Terry Gilliam, the film is fitting of those comparisons. With tactile set and costume design, and some of the year’s most awe-inspiring photography, this surreal near-masterpiece does really owe a great deal to Gilliam, but is entirely its own monster. Ayoade’s direction is brazenly assured and entirely esoteric, possibly hinting at just what type of real voice the ever growing director truly has. Be it a shot of Eisenberg strolling down a never ending hallway, or a breathtaking tracking shot that will have any viewer gasping for air near the film’s conclusion, Ayoade’s direction here is some of the most bombastic and singular we’ve seen in quite some time.
A wonderfully paced meditation on identity, loneliness and everything in between, the film may be a tough sit for some, particularly those not accustomed to the densely layered and percussively written screenplay that the film features here. However, for those willing to go along on this surreal ride will not only discover layer upon layer to this film, but will find a director on the brink of a complete artistic breakthrough. The type of film that comes from a veteran auteur with more confidence in his own artistic hand than just about anything on this planet, knowing that this is only Ayoade’s sophomore effort is startling and ultimately frustrating. So much talent and confidence shouldn’t be allowed to a director this green. But thankfully it is because while there have been comparisons made, the film world hasn’t seen a picture like this in quite some time. The rest of 2014, you have a lot to live up to.