It’s hard to fault Richard Ayoade’s ambition. After Making a name for himself on British TV as the creator of Garth Merenghi’s Dark Place and co-star of The IT Crowd, he made the leap to feature films with 2011’s Submarine, a quirky comedy reminiscent of Wes Anderson. The Double is a left-field follow up: an adaptation of a Dostoyevsky novella that weaves deadpan comedy into an existentialist nightmare.
The film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James, a drab office drone so unremarkable that his boss can’t remember his name after seven years on the job. He harbours a crush on his colleague/neighbour Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) and spends his evenings peering into her apartment via his telescope. Simon’s dreary life begins to unravel after the arrival of James Simon, a doppelganger – also played by Eisenberg – who is everything Simon isn’t: slick, charming, successful with the opposite sex and upwardly mobile professionally, quickly catching Hannah’s eye and earning a promotion.
The Double, which Ayoade co-wrote with Avi Korine (Harmony Korine’s brother), is light on plot but high on mood and style. The world Simon inhabits is surreal and disorientating, his dingy office filled with retro 80’s style computer equipment and giant photocopiers and his grimly sparse apartment equipped with only a small TV that seems to constantly be playing a bizarre 70’s sci-fi show (starring Paddy Considine). It’s even impossible to pin down where the film is set and the eclectic cast – including Americans, Brits and Aussies, amongst others – just add to the discomfiting feel.
Tasked with playing two versions of the same character, Eisenberg impressively makes Simon and James, who are always seen decked out in matching brown suits, distinctive characters. Shy, withdrawn Simon is like the extreme version of the awkward teens Eisenberg played so frequently early in his career whereas smooth-talking lothario James is far more cocksure, even coaching Simon on the ways of seduction in scenes that recall Eisenberg’s screen-debut Roger Dodger.
Wasikowska has the most significant supporting role and gives one of her typically troubled, gloomy performances that is right at home in this world. The rest of the cast is filled out by reliable supporting players – and most of the cast of Submarine – including Craig Roberts, Sally Hawkins, Yasmin Paige and Noah Taylor.
The Double is sure to be a divisive film. While the socially awkward comedy and the nightmare of losing your identity might be relatable, there’s a real lack of heart that makes the film slightly hard to engage with. Coupled with its unnerving setting – which owes a debt to many different sources, most notably Terry Gilliam’s Brazil – and a deeply grim sense of humour, it’s never going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
Still, it’s an impressive second outing for Ayoade, avoiding the sophomore slump and building on the promise he showed with Submarine, though in a completely unexpected direction. Aided by Erik Wilson’s moody, brown/green cinematography and an unsettling score from Andrew Hewitt, Ayoade’s film is a richly surreal and atmospheric descent into madness and paranoia that isn’t easily shaken off.