A classic 19th century doppelganger tale from a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novella gets a modern twist in Richard Ayoade's "The Double" (2013).
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is your archetypal pushover loser, working in a claustrophobic, bureaucratic workplace that looks like a miniature model of Josef K's office in "The Trial" (1962), albeit with cubicle partitions. A typically meek individual, he is the kind of person who would quietly take a cold snub from even the security guard at his own office where he has been working for the last seven years. Almost always unable to muster the courage to speak out or retaliate, Simon leads a doormat existence, even to the point of not being recognized or acknowledged by some of his colleagues.
Enter James Simon, his exact physical double but characteristically exact polar opposite, who shows up as a new employee. Much to Simon's shock and dismay, others around him seem to accept this double rather nonchalantly, without any kind of disbelief or amazement regarding their physical and namesake resemblance. Simon's already tenuous position is further jeopardized when this new entrant, his phenomenally charismatic doppelganger threatens to take over his job, his love, his life, even his entire existence.
"The Double" is essentially a Kafkaesque nightmare that plays out like a deliriously funny, absurdist black comedy. A pitiable protagonist makes a good subject for some wickedly humorous writing, and Ayoade and co-screenwriter Avi Korine hit all the right notes with the tragicomedy that ensues. The story is not necessarily original or unheard of, thanks to the existence of various interpretations and re-imaginations of Dostoyevsky's story in several films and shorts of the sort, but "The Double" is a product that still manages to stand on its own. Despite obvious influences that leap out, Ayoade's film makes a big impression thanks to some crackling wry wit, oodles of atmosphere and a strong lead performance.
Indeed, Jesse Eisenberg hits a home run with his brilliantly segregated dual act. Despite almost the same makeup on both James and Simon, Eisenberg successfully creates two drastically distinct individuals with entirely disparate body languages and speech mannerisms. On one hand is the submissive mouse, Simon who can hardly get himself to utter two words audible and assertive enough for the other person to hear, while on the other is James, the smooth-and-fast-talking smart-ass, evoking memories of his "The Social Network" (2010) performance. It is a masterstroke for both the filmmaker and the actor, that they are able to elicit extreme emotional responses from the viewer for the same guy in a single frame.
The heart almost weeps for the poor, rejected bloke that is Simon and at the same time loathes that same face that we see on James. Rivaling this dual act is Mia Wasikowska as Hannah, the object of Simon's silent affection, who seems to have some schizophrenic tendencies of her own, what with her switching from uber cute to uber rude in a visible transformation, physically as well as behaviourally. Of course, finding a normal individual in Ayoade's film is a bit of a task, considering, but not limited to, the fact that we are looking at the events on the screen mostly with Simon's lens. Plenty of eccentric looneys show up, a la the films of David Lynch, particularly that creepy old woman with short pigtails who ominously declares, "Your mother says you are a strange boy!".
And hence it is a matter of personal interpretation as to what happens in that maddening third act when all hell breaks loose with James' increasing influence, as Simon's personality begins to nullify. With a rising existential crisis, his sanity gradually spirals out of control and desperation gets the better of him. He struggles to keep his identity, with the film now changing tone from a light, fun comedy to a genuinely unsettling nightmare, especially when it appears that there are doubles of some others around as well!
Apart from an engrossing plot of a formidable predicament, Ayoade's imaginative depiction of the dreary world inhabited by our hapless protagonist goes a long way in making the film so immensely watchable. Simon appears to be a part of some draconian society led by a Big Brother like figure known only as "The Colonel". With mandatory dos and extremely bureaucratic adherence to rules, including the refusal to admit even an old, familiar employee without an ID, this world resembles a sort of hybrid between the one in Michael Radford's adaptation of George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1984) and Orson Welles' Kafka adaptation, "The Trial" (1962).
An industrial setting, with an environment that is mostly dark, evokes memories of "Eraserhead" (1977). We never really see any daylight, it is mostly only night time on screen, beautifully illuminated by moody lighting with shifting shades and colours. A low rumble, again a common Lynch trait, fills the air for the most part, when it is not the heavy strings score. Choice songs occupy the soundtrack, and the incorporation and placement of the classic Japanese number "Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto is a stroke of genius, rendering a magical touch, arousing feelings of sweet romance and nostalgia. Closely constructed apartment buildings and instances of voyeurism are a respectful nod to Kieslowski's The Decalogue - VI ("Thou Shalt not Covet") (1988).
2013 was a year that saw the release of another spectacular doppelganger thriller, "Enemy", directed by Denis Villeneuve. "The Double" is no exact double of Villeneuve's masterpiece, but it is one of the finest psychological thrillers out there. Grab it without hesitation.