Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1846 novella receives a forceful cinematic reworking with "The Double," a fractured, steampunk-infused parable of paranoia and identity. Writer-director Richard Ayoade (2011's "Submarine
") and co-writer Avi Korine (Harmony's brother) are guilty of a certain, possibly intentional, archness to their satiric storytelling, but they make it okay to admire and stylistically rhapsodize over the film rather than feel it on a more emotionally intimate level. Set in an unspecified time period in a bleak unnamed city populated by modern characters who have seemingly been transplanted into an imaginary bygone era of dystopian film noir
leanings, "The Double" reminds of Terry Gilliam and Alex Proyas by way of Wes Anderson, David Lynch, and possibly David Cronenberg, too. In recalling all of these filmmakers without quite mirroring any of them, the picture perceptibly strikes as its own unhinged, absurdist entity.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a somebody who feels like a nobody. A soft-spoken singleton with an unspoken crush on comely co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), Simon heads to his office job every day with few people noticing that he even exists. When he loses his briefcase and badge in the automatic doors of a subway train one morning, he is mistaken for a visitor by front-desk security. It is a slap in the face for a dedicated employee who has been with the company for seven years, but things only get worse with the appearance of slick, self-assured new colleague James Simon (Jesse Eisenberg, again). No one else seems to notice that James looks exactly like him, his suspicious doppelgänger wasting no time in ingratiating himself with the rest of the office and charming their boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn). Simon is at first hesitant about getting close to James, then starts to see him as a sort of mentor in helping him to improve his confidence. The more time they spend together, however, the more Simon's lookalike begins to impede upon his life. If he doesn't figure out a way to outsmart or outright stop him, he risks losing his job, his burgeoning relationship with Hannah, and ultimately himself for good.
Watching "The Double" unfold is similar to immersing oneself in a dream. What happens carries the logic that only a person's sleeping hours can offer, director Richard Ayoade boldly embracing a new world existing somewhere between 1985's "Brazil" and 1998's "Dark City." This, of course, is not a place where the viewer would ever want to live, but it is dynamite to get to visit for an hour and a half. Televisions are still square, clunky, grainy boxes. People write with pens dipped in glass bottles of ink. Office printers are bulky metallic monsters, as large as cars. If there is a sun that ever comes out in the sky, it has taken an extended hiatus. Erik Wilson's monochrome lensing of the oppressively dismal landscape is contrasted by sparks of splashy neon and glimmer, while the musical orchestrations by Andrew Hewitt aggressively complement the uncontrollable omens coming Simon's way.
Morbid serendipity comes in the form of a suicide victim who waves to Simon one night from the ledge of Hannah's apartment building across the way before matter-of-factly leaping to his death. The guy, who could have been saved if only he'd hit the awning six inches to his right, is an instant goner, but it is because of his fateful decision that Simon has a reason to talk to the object of his affection outside of work. He and Hannah begin to awkwardly hit it off, or so it would seem, but this is still before James shows up to shine a light on all his inadequacies. When even his ailing mother (Phyllis Somerville) has labeled him a disappointment, it is difficult to dispute the consensus. In a dual role that is slightly broader but no less attune than Jake Gyllenhaal's reciprocal work in 2014's "Enemy
," Jesse Eisenberg (2013's "Now You See Me
") plays Simon as a lonely dreamer and James as a manipulative extrovert with equally incisive mastery. The latter character, an enigma with possibly nefarious intentions, is creepy not just for who he is, but where he comes from (if, in fact, he comes from anywhere). As Hannah, Mia Wasikowska (2014's "Only Lovers Left Alive
") continues to mold herself in ways that remain separate from all the past characters she has inhabited. Attractive but unthreatening, Hannah is an approachable young woman let down by love and wishing for acceptance. She is not an obvious outsider like Simon, but internally feels like she doesn't belong. It is a personal hang-up exemplified in the drawings she regularly tears up and throws down the garbage chute, drawings which Simon privately retrieves and pieces back together.
Like a casebook episode of "The Twilight Zone," "The Double" presents an ominous cautionary tale that turns reality into a weird origami project, culminating with a twisty, full-circle hook. Sly black humor involving office politics and bureaucratic greed further spins the otherwise searing tone, as when a worker at Simon's mom's nursing home informs him the cost of living has skyrocketed, his fingers clasping together into little pincers as he impatiently waits for Simon to give him money. When the film comes to a close, there is the sensation present that what has just been seen is different and special enough to be applauded, even when the experience has leaned toward the technical and conceptual. If "The Double" is a tad too chilly dramatically for there to be much purgative punch, its unique ambience of unease and eccentricity is irresistible.