The Double, Richard Ayoade’s second major directorial release, is a modern retelling of the Dostoevsky novella of the same name starring Jesse Eisenberg (twice), Mia Wasikowska and Wallace Shawn. Set in a dark, soulless dystopian bureaucracy featuring visual cues from Brazil, Eraserhead and Dark City, the film follows Eisenberg as Simon James, the hard working yet under appreciated office drone working for an unfeeling manager named Mr. Padadopoulos (Shawn, essentially reprising his role from The Incredibles). He pines for Hannah (Wasikowska), a young woman working in a different department, but does not have the emotional confidence to make any sort of headway. One day, Simon arrives at work to discover the hiring of a new employee named James, who appears to be his identical twin even though he has no knowledge of such a twin existing. James could not be more opposite to Simon in both temperament and demeanor, and it does not take much time at all for him to wreak havoc on all aspects of Simon’s life.
Ayoade has created a bold vision for the world of The Double that clearly points to a deep history and understanding of film knowledge. The strongest foundation comes from Terry Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece Brazil. The cramped spaces, the tiny cubicles, the meaningless work, the suffering bureaucracy, all of this visual language is heavily reliant on The Ministry of Information. Simon’s home life certainly has its own dash of Brazil, but the continual aggressive darkness and foreboding design of the soulless high rise apartments clearly have their roots in Eraserhead and Dark City. All light is artificial, an environment of pale whites and yellows, throwing unflattering shadows across faces from angles both high and low. The cinematography and camera choices reinforce this sense of unease and alienation, creating an overall tone of affectation that feeds right back into Simon’s individual journey of confusion and distress.
Eisenberg is at the top of his game here, but what is most important is that his game is evolving. The Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network, Adventureland or Zombieland was an excellent actor, but he was an excellent actor within some very specific limitations. Those roles all asked for a neurotic, mostly antisocial and intelligent but aloof character, a trope that he has perfected over the years. And the Simon role is, in nearly every way, the classic sort of expected Jesse Eisenberg character, and he plays it about as well as one would expect. But James could not be any more different. He is relaxed, cool, confident and collected. His energy as James is unlike anything else Eisenberg has done in his career. Ayoade is smart to actively play with the audience’s expectations in his casting of Eisenberg in both roles; when James hits the screen, it’s such a departure from his standard disposition that it’s almost hard to believe he is the same actor.
Eisenberg is not the only actor on screen, of course, and while there is a cavalcade of recognizable players in small roles (Paddy Considine, Noah Taylor, Phyllis Somerville, Chris O’Dowd, Sally Hawkins, etc.), the focus is on Wasikowska and Shawn. Wallace Shawn has always been a dependable annoying weasel, which is always an asset for a middle management authority figure (especially an impotent blowhard). The way he treats each iteration of Eisenberg so differently (much to the chagrin of Simon) creates the perfect atmosphere of administrative neglect to really make Simon’s blood boil. Wasikowska is also playing to her strengths; Hannah’s general sense of moribund waifishness is very much in her wheelhouse, and after the digression that was her role in Only Lovers Left Alive (a James-like performance of shocking range), this is much more akin to her work in Stoker or Jane Eyre or Alice in Wonderland. That specific personality profile works well within the framework of this story, as it’s the exact sort of person Simon would quietly obsess over and James would be more than willing and able to take advantage of, thus adding some extra spice of romantic jealousy to the Simon/James battle.
By the time it reaches its end, The Double succeeds on just about every level. From its excellent visual approach, production design and score to its witty dialogue, clever plotting and uniformly excellent acting, Richard Ayoade has taken the time to carefully construct a fully realized, living and breathing world that feels genuine in its own twisted little way, The story is a solid interpretation of the source material, with a smart plot arc and fully believable sense of existential dread that comes from one’s life being turned on its ear in the most surprising of ways. As a new entrant into the realm of future dystopias, The Double is a film that is worthy of its predecessors, but more than willing to branch out and forge its own destiny.