The mind of shy office clerk Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), smitten with a colleague (Mia Wasikowska), begins to unravel when he meets the firm’s newest employee, James Simon – an exact double of himself.
Richard Ayoade may have a doppelganger: can this adaptation of a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novella really be the follow-up to sublime coming-of-age story Submarine, which propelled him from TV nerd-comic to cinema auteur? It appears so – but then, in The Double, very little is what it appears to be. Like vodka, films based on Russian literature tend to improve with filtration, and so Ayoade lifts the premise, and certain satirical elements, from Dostoyevsky’s novella, filtering them through an intoxicating combination of Kafka, Orwell and Gilliam. If Submarine was Ayoade’s Gregory’s Girl, The Double is his Brazil.
In a dingy, bureaucratic office in what seems to be a cruel alternative universe, underpaid and overworked office clerks like Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) commute to grim, demeaning office jobs, where they punch in and punch out, barely earning enough to pay for their dingy, Eastern Bloc-style apartments. Simon, a nebbish in an ill-fitting suit, is so insignificant he has to prove his identity every day to the officious security guard, and is barely noticed by the pretty colleague he moons over: Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who works in the copy room (naturally). Simon’s pitiful existence takes a turn for the worse, not to mention the weird, when he meets the firm’s newest employee, James Simon (Eisenberg again), who not only bears a mirror image of his name, but also his exact face. Although physically identical to Simon in every respect – a fact which, as in the novella, no one else seems to notice – Simon’s doppelganger has everything he doesn’t: confidence, charisma, and success at work and success with the opposite sex. But could James’ striking resemblance be a Fight Club-style figment of Simon’s imagination? Or is this doppelganger out to steal Simon’s life?
Despite the disturbing subject matter, Stygian cinematography and sound design straight out of the Berberian Sound Studio, Ayoade underpins everything with his blackly comic sensibility, a sense heightened by a supporting cast that includes Wallace Shawn, Chris O’Dowd and Christopher Morris – not to mention the entire cast of Submarine.
Given the obvious influences on The Double, it could have felt like a facsimile of other films. Instead, it has enough individuality, imagination and idiosyncratic invention to identify it as a true original. ★★★★