The Double is the second movie about a man confronting his doppelganger to come out this spring. The first, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, was based on a novel by Jose Saramago (coincidentally called The Double) and was a bleak, psychosexual affair that channeled David Cronenberg right down to its sterile, utilitarian Toronto settings. The new film, directed by Richard Ayoade (Submarine) is adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s book and takes a decidedly more satirical, Gilliam-esque approach to the material.
Either take is valid, but The Double might have the edge by taking the bizarre nature of the material and making it more entertaining by accepting the humor inherent in the situation. Both stories are about adult men — ground down to hollow shells by routine, apathy and unfulfilled desires — who are suddenly faced with more confident, swaggering, sexual versions of themselves. With The Double, Ayoade takes an irreverent approach that, while still ultimately dark, undercuts the potential for this to become just another existential d**k-swinging contest.
He’s helped immeasurably by his cast, which is topped by Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James, a mildly ambitious but still meek cog in some nameless company who tries desperately to please his boss (the always welcome and captivating Wallace Shawn) and make some sort of meaningful connection with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the ethereal girl who works one floor down in a different department and also lives across the street from him. But Simon is barely acknowledged by his boss, his co-workers, Hannah or even his own mother; everything for him seems to be pointing toward a life of quiet, earnest, well-intentioned failure.
Enter James Simon, who shows up at the office one day and looks exactly like Simon — except that no one notices except for him. But their resemblance aside, James is nothing like Simon — he’s cocky, socially smooth and predatory in matters both personal and business. James soon begins taking over everything in Simon’s life — executing his ideas at work and taking credit for them, positioning himself for ascension on the corporate ladder and, worst of all, engaging romantically with Hannah — which drives Simon to the edge and beyond of anger and finally madness.
Eisenberg is excellent in the two roles, effectively capturing Simon’s deer-in-the-headlights approach to life while taking his usual smarmy onscreen persona into a more sinister new realm with his portrayal of James (side note: this movie more or less sealed the deal for me in terms of whether Eisenberg can play Lex Luthor — the answer is yes). Eisenberg follows a difficult path, trod by the likes of Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Nicolas Cage in Adaptation and Dominic Cooper in the little-seen The Devil’s Double, and makes you feel like you’re watching two completely different people onscreen for the entire running time.
All this takes place in an unidentified city, like that of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, that at once seems set in both the future and the past. We rarely see daylight, and even street scenes seem to exist under some weird, claustrophobic ceiling. The interiors of both Simon’s apartment building and his office are dusty, dank and archaic, indicating a society that itself has ground to a halt. But it’s all in service of the movie’s central theme, which is about how one’s own sense of self-worth and identity can get quickly lost in a world of faceless bureaucracy and pointless one-upmanship, and how easily replaceable each human being is in such a soulless world.
Ayoade makes his statement more than clear with The Double, and if anything the movie eventually becomes heavy-handed in that message without necessarily adding any new wrinkles to it. It can also be hard to care about a character like Simon, whose self-sabotage seems more like a function of the plot than of anything deeply rooted in his character. Yet despite those flaws, The Double is still compelling to watch, thanks to Ayoade’s quirky eye and tone (on just his second feature) and the terrific performances from Eisenberg, Shawn and Wasikowska. And yes, if you’re in the mood for a marathon of existential despair, it should make for a nice double bill with Enemy.