Film Review: The Double

Both visually groundbreaking and darkly funny, this dystopian vision set in a retro-future features the twitchy talents of Jesse Eisenberg both as a nebbish and his swaggering nemesis.
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Making good on the promise of his debut feature Submarine, Richard Ayoade takes a 180-degree-turn into far darker territory with The Double. Loosely inspired by Dostoevsky’s novella of the same title, the Brit filmmaker unfurls a dystopian vision about the trials of office drone Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) that carries alienation to absurdist dimensions. The comic, wildly original mise-en-scène evokes a seedy limbo of outmoded offices and dreary housing projects located in some queasy space between past and future.

Not coincidentally, this provocation was backed by the team behind Harmony Korine’s grotesquely funny Trash Humpers (and co-written by Korine’s brother). In a period whiplashed by market demands, it’s gratifying to watch a gifted young filmmaker pursue his vision to the hilt in a work that resists both commerce and genre categorization.

The Double starts with a disorienting jolt. “You are in my place,” a man tells Simon, though the subway train is empty. Simon’s briefcase then gets caught in the train door, leaving him with only the handle. Unable to put a foot right, Simon’s default position is apology; virtually invisible to those around him, he’s barred by a sadistic guard from entering his office without an ID, though he’s worked there for seven years. He lives in near-total isolation, gets dissed by his mother and ignored by Hannah, the girl of his dreams (Mia Wasikowska). Enter his new co-worker, James, Simon’s exact physical double—and his opposite: confident, charismatic, good with women. To Simon’s horror, James proceeds to take over his life, both on the employment and romantic front. Third-act plotting tends to trip over its own feet, perhaps reflecting the disintegration of the non-hero’s psyche.

Simon works at a company that traffics in something amusingly called “Regression Analysis” and is tyrannized by a little-seen Colonel (James Fox). His immediate boss (Wallace Shawn) showers him with insults and barks out nonsensical directives. Simon’s world evokes both the paranoia of Kafka and alienation of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, as well as the retro-future of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Yet in assembling an arsenal of nocturnal spaces alternating with splashes of hepatitis yellow, Ayoade invents a visual vocabulary all his own.

Equally striking, the soundtrack delivers ambient crackling noises and faint carousel music, as if to impart the very sound of alienation. A hand-dryer in the gents’ room roars like a jumbo jet taking off. And just as the hapless Simon works up to a declaration of love to Hannah in a dim coffee shop, he’s drowned out by a thundering subway train. The mise-en-scène is dotted with throwaway visual jokes, like the dim image of a longhaired American Indian seated at the next table who seems to have wandered in from a different film, maybe by Guy Maddin. A very realistic gorilla presides over another restaurant. The set is as dressed as a Wes Anderson milieu, but more menacingly. And check out the weird space-invaders thriller that repeatedly plays on Simon’s old Philco-vintage TV. Strangely, no one at the screening I attended laughed. Are critics losing their sense of humor?

Especially funny are the set-pieces of an office party with a toxic-looking buffet and Latin-ish music, and a third-act showdown between the devilish doppelganger and Simon (“He stole my face”) wielding someone’s prosthetic arm. (Coincidentally, the current Enemy by Denis Villeneuve also features a maleficent twin.) You’d better enjoy watching Eisenberg doing his shtick because there’s a double dose of him. Curiously, his adroit, extroverted double doesn’t seem all that different from the twitchy loser.

What does Ayoade’s fractured, absurdist drama amount to in the end? Could be a five-finger exercise prefacing something more expansive in the pipeline. As it stands, The Double draws on past literary giants to nail a current malaise with offbeat humor and visionary flair.

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