By Alistair Ryder (@YesItsAlistair)
“The Double” tells the story of a lonely office worker with no distinct personality of his own. His family openly refer to him as a disappointment and his colleagues openly state he’s a weirdo- if they remember his existence at all. One day, his doppelganger moves in to the apartment block opposite and takes a job at the same company. If this were all I told you about Richard Ayoade’s new film, his second film as director after 2011’s wonderful “Submarine”, you would still be able to accurately say how the story develops and concludes. But then, the simplest stories (this one adapted from Dostoyevsky’s novella) are retold frequently in different ways- and it’s about how the story is being told that counts.
Jesse Eisenberg stars in the dual lead role as protagonist and antagonist. It is some of the most perfect casting I’ve ever seen; as awkward office drone Simon James he exploits his own public reputation for being socially awkward and neurotic to winning effect, whilst as the socially confident doppelganger James Simon he winningly plays against type as a cross between his character in “Now You See Me” and Neil Patrick Harris’ subverted womanising persona in the “Harold and Kumar” films.
In only his second film behind the camera, Ayoade has established himself as a truly unique and singular voice in British cinema. His debut film “Submarine” was criticized in some corners for being too stylistically similar to Wes Anderson, despite forging an emotional connection with the audience that Anderson had then failed to achieve (“Moonrise Kingdom” putting an end to the style over substance in his work). “The Double” develops many of the stylistic trademarks that characterized that film; the sounds of trains driving on tracks overhead, characters reading letters not by voiceover but directly to camera in front of a black silhouette, the never overtly specified 80’s setting. The same things that saw him getting accused of plagiarism upon his last film now look like the work of a distinctive filmmaker- all the more impressive considering this is only his second feature film.
“The Double” is billed as a dark comedy, but the laughs are few and far between. Instead, the screenplay (co-written with Ayoade by Avi Korine) is more concerned with existentialism. Simon James wants to develop his relationship with a co-worker (Mia Wasikowska) so he can feel real emotion and not just be a “wooden boy” like Pinocchio, all against the backdrop of a conformist “Brazil”-esque bureaucratic office environment and a city where even the police department lose track of how many suicides occur in a single day. If “Submarine” was the sunny disposition of Wes Anderson, “The Double” goes so far in the other direction it mostly resembles the acerbic cynicism of Todd Solondz, albeit with reasons to actually care about the characters.
Only a truly talented filmmaker can take an oft-told story and make it feel original. By succeeding, Ayoade establishes himself as one of the best filmmakers in Britain today.