If Wes Anderson immersed himself in Orwell, Kafka, and other high priests of chilly, bureaucratic horror, the result might look something like Richard Ayoade’s metaphysical nightmare The Double. That would never happen, of course, as Anderson is, when all is said and done, an optimist and fabulist who believes in the happy ending, warted though it might be. Ayoade is a colder fish, as he showed in his first film, Submarine, which had a little too much fun reveling in its young protagonist’s studied quirk for its own sake. But that directorial remove, coupled with a lack of desire to pretend that a character’s suffering in any way automatically creates nobility, and helps make Avi Korine’s adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novella into a bracing, darkly crystalline film that isn’t easily shaken off. If there were ever such a thing as the nightmare comedy, this is it.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon, an office worker and all-around sad-sack who starts the film off by letting a man take his seat on the train even though every other seat in the car is empty. Eisenberg plays Simon as an even more muted variation on the stammering thinkers with a volcano’s worth of repressed emotion that he’s been specializing in since Adventureland. Simon’s suit hangs on him in David Byrne sags and his hands flit like nervous birds as he tries to make anybody notice him. Ayoade throws Simon into an office environment that seems to be like what a big firm would look like in 1970s England if rationing had never stopped and the Soviets had taken over. Everything bangs and roars under the prison-cell lighting (either eye-peeling glare or inky pools of black). Workers scuttle between the cramped cubicles in togs that looked to have been dragged out of the bottom bin in a forgotten East Berlin department store. Inter-departmental combat is a given and with the bafflingly inhumane demands of the bureaucracy (lots of gloomy comedy in which apparatchiks insist that Simon, with his outdated ID card, doesn’t actually exist).
In other words, it’s the perfect place for a mousy nobody to hunker down and be forgotten. That possibility becomes particularly pronounced once new employee James shows up. He’s droll, charming, something of a rake, beloved by the boss (a fuming, hyperbolic Wallace Shawn), and a cold-hearted killer who just happens to look and dress exactly like Simon. Eisenberg plays James as well, keeping Simon’s precise and careful maneuvering but infusing it with the grifter’s bravura that he brought to his con-artist magician Now You See Me. Once everybody gets a load of James, it’s as though Simon really never existed. From that point on, The Double’s dream-world becomes less of a dark joke with visual gags — the clattering and clanking pre-digital technology that never quite existed, the soundtrack that flips from Asian bubblegum to Kronos Quartet-like squalling discord – and more of a bleak, murderous study of isolation and the fragility of the self in mammoth institutions.
Like in Brazil, whose dark humor and labyrinthine visual twists informs much of Ayoade’s claustrophobic, alternate-history film (and 1984, which Terry Gilliam liberally appropriated from), the stunted male protagonist has one outlet for his poetic side: an unreachable woman who barely acknowledges him. In Simon’s case, it’s Hannah (Mia Wasikowska, sharp, with a Claire Danes-like directness to her), a pert beauty who works in his office and lives across the courtyard. As any self-respecting lovelorn loner would, Simon barely says a word to Hannah when given the chance and spies on her through a telescope. That leads to trouble one night, when in the course of his observations, Simon watches a man jump off the ledge to his death — but only after looking right at Simon and waving.
If it wasn’t for Eisenberg’s powerful delivery of both characters’ extremes, The Double may not have worked. Ayoade has the right sensibility for mixing sadness and comedy and a keen knack for inventing an entire fantasy world that has the heft and texture of the everyday. But the film’s fetishizing of bleakness and its repetitive degradation of Simon almost becomes too much in the end, not to mention the thick quilt of reference that Ayoade layers over the whole thing (even The Apartment and Rear Window are nodded to). Eisenberg pulls the film through, reminding us of the humanity that can still exist inside the most grim of systems or overly deterministic of films.