It’s not usual for a film like “The Double” to exist. It’s a murky, deeply philosophical tale based on an even more abstract Russian short story of the same name by Dostoevsky, but it features A-list actors and is directed by a British stand-up comedian. In today’s polarized film industry — where the unoriginal movies get the money and the daring ones rarely get seen — Richard Ayoade’s “The Double” is a subtle gem that slips through the cracks.
The story follows the quietly desperate life of Simon James (a phenomenal Jesse Eisenberg), who works as a clerk in a nondescript governmental agency that feels like a bureaucratic sweatshop. The world in which he lives is set dubiously sometime in the future (or a very bleak alternative past), comprising dark shadows, industrial architecture and an ambiguous swirl of accents. Simon finds himself continually out of step with everything and everyone around him, like a modern update of Charlie Chaplin’s “tramp” character sans the stunt work. He spends his time failing to land his big ideas within earshot of his supervisor and secretly admiring an off-beat girl next door (Mia Wasikowska). What little life he has is thrown into absurd turmoil when his exact double James Simon (also Eisenberg) appears and begins to take everything he’s wanted.
It is at this point that the plot starts to feel like a joke told by philosophy majors at a bar: “If a man has an existential crisis and no one is around to care, does he even exist?” He does exist — or at least Simon wants to believe he exists — and he is gradually pushed to the brink of madness, chaos and murder to take back what is his.
As the subject matter gets darker, so do the laughs, and audiences will undoubtedly find themselves unanimously rooting for Simon no matter what depths he reaches.
Ayoade’s poignant, off-kilter comedic timing (as seen in “The Watch” and the beloved but short-lived “The IT Crowd”) is perfect for directing this story, which, if told completely seriously, would lose viewers immediately. “The Double” marks the follow up to 2010’s indie smash hit “Submarine” and shows a talented mind that is quickly finding its wheelhouse. The film hangs on the little moments of Simon’s constant internal battle to achieve some sort of self-esteem. While the world around him is relentlessly discouraging to its main character, it’s obvious that Ayoade cares about him tremendously. It’s this genuineness that gives the film bursts of heartfelt hope.
Casting Eisenberg as the neurotic Simon hardly took a stretch of the imagination (imagine his Zuckerberg, without the ego), but picking him for a role in which he must also play the loose, cocky yin to Simon’s yang James was a stroke of genius. Eisenberg hits the marks for both characters, making the convention of Simon’s identity crises a believable battle of good and evil.
Ayoade tops the film with a warm, love-struck soundtrack of retro-‘60s Asian infusion and brilliantly uses it to project the psychological ups and downs that Simon experiences. Crisp, brooding cinematography sets the tone well from the first frame and makes the film’s slow build-up captivating.
While it’s the oppressive dystopia that serves as the instigator for Simon’s story, Ayoade’s eye for finding humanity in the even the darkest of places makes this film worth watching.
“The Double,” however, is not for everyone. For some, it will be a slow, at times abstruse narrative that offers no closure and is too weighed down by the heavy pretensions of its philosophical source material. For those who choose to view the story as an allegory rather than literal fact, it might be the best movie of the year.
Ryan Koehn covers film. Contact him at [email protected].