Jesse Eisenberg stars as a lonely, timid young man trapped in an existential nightmare with his mirror-image doppelgänger in Richard Ayoade’s brilliant sophomore feature, The Double, a dark, imaginative adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella, itself a riff on the work of Nikolai Gogol. “It was a little before eight o’clock in the morning when Titular Concillor Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin woke from a long sleep, yawned, stretched, and finally opened his eyes completely. He lay motionless in bed, however, for a couple of minutes more, like a man who is not yet quite sure whether he is awake or still asleep, and whether what is happening around him is real and actual or only the continuation of his disordered dreams,” Dostoyevsky’s tale begins, and Ayoade (Submarine) captures that confusion with respectful nods to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Orson Welles’s Kafka adaptation, The Trial, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, and David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Eisenberg (The Social Network, The Squid and the Whale) is first seen as Simon James, an intelligent but absurdly shy office drone who has trouble dealing with people; he spies on coworker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) through a telescope, fumbles his words whenever his boss (Wallace Shawn) comes around, remains utterly silent when his excellent work goes unnoticed, and doesn’t complain when he is regularly mistreated by a gruff waitress (Cathy Moriarty) at a local diner. Even the elevator and his mother (Phyllis Somerville) don’t like him. As his identity continues to shrink, he is blindsided by the arrival of Simon James (Eisenberg), who is everything James Simon isn’t: suave, sophisticated, sexy, and ambitious, willing to say or do whatever it takes to get ahead at the office — and into young women’s apartments.
Virtually everything about The Double is doubled. The story takes place in a nondescript future/past that is part utopia, part dystopia, with mysterious subways and other unpredictable spaces that are lushly beautiful and threatening. Both James and Simon are interested in Hannah, who runs the copy machine in the office basement, where James regularly goes to get a single copy made (another instance of doubling). As James becomes more invisible, Simon shows up everywhere, seemingly much more than just an alter ego. Where James’s world seems to be a nightmare, Simon’s is like a dream. Oddly, however, James is the only person who recognizes that Simon looks exactly like him, making for some very funny yet heartbreaking scenes. Erik Alexander Wilson, who worked with Ayoade on the indie hit Submarine, shoots the film in an ominous, shadowy darkness with a dulled palette and gorgeous lighting effects. The strong, quirky supporting cast includes often bizarre appearances by Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins, Chris O’Dowd, Cathy Moriarty, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, and James Fox as the Colonel, the company founder who James is desperate to impress. Written by Ayoade with Avi Korine, The Double is a crazy, extremely strange, thoroughly engaging and enraging examination of identity, of who we are and who we want to be, further establishing Ayoade as a unique auteur with a fascinating take on humanity.