Richard Ayoade’s new film The Double has set a new standard for urban alienation movies. I am going to attempt to give you the tone of the film, without giving anything away, since this film thrives on tiny details, and becomes larger and more complex the longer it lives in your mind. Ayoade and Eisenberg have created a film that speaks to our current neuroses while building on the great dystopic visions of films past.
The plot is simple. Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a sad, lonely young man living in a vaguely nightmarish world. He works as a clerk at an enormous office, part of a company run by the mysterious “Colonel.” He visits his mother at a nursing home each night, and spies on people from his tiny, shabby apartment. Every day is exactly the same until his exact doppelganger, James Simon, joins his department. James Simon is also played by Jesse Eisenberg, but he’s confident, swaggering, outgoing, often rude.
If you think wacky Kafka-esque hijinks ensue, you are correct! If you think there’s an idealized dreamgirl, you are correct! If you think said dreamgirl becomes a point of contention between James Simon and Simon James… well, you are somewhat correct. This might give the impression that the film is derivative, but I didn’t see it that way at all—I think Ayoade (who completely fulfills the promise of his first film, Submarine, here) is playing with all the elements we expect from “dystopian black comedy” and then tweaking them just enough to keep us unsettled, and to finally make a new point.
My identification with Simon’s suffering was increased enormously by the woman who sat down next to me just as the lights went down. In an otherwise silent theatre, this lady (whom I’m sure is a lovely person, deserving of all good things in life) rattled a bag and ate popcorn unceasingly throughout the film. I mean, I expect some popcorn eating, but it sounded as though her normal, human mouth wasn’t up to the task, and she had applied some sort of hose attachment onto her jaw. There were moments I was furious, moments I worried that she had not eaten for several days, and moment when I was simply in awe. But the moment she won my heart? Oh, that was a moment when reality opened around me, like one of those tropical flowers that only blooms for like, an hour out of the day and I, by luck or grace or blind chance, happened to be in the right jungle clearing at the right time. There is only one moment of true violence in the film, and it works perfectly, and is, in the tradition of black comedies, bleakly funny. A gentleman in the front of the theater let out a single, astonished guffaw. And the lady next to me says, in a voice that I can only describe as Lynchian: “What kind of person laughs at that? Disgusting animal.” And then kept eating popcorn. So I saw the end of the film through a haze of joy that might impact this review a bit.
First, some background: The Double is based on a novella published in 1846 by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This was one of Dostoyevsky’s first longer works, written just as he was beginning his flirtation with socialism, and before his imprisonment and firing-squad conversion experience. Most critics take it to be a response to some of Gogol’s stories, and generally it feels like more of a critique of Russian society than the titanic emotional wrestling that comes in his later work. For those who don’t know Richard Ayoade, well, your lives are about to get better. He’s best known for playing Maurice Moss on the IT Crowd, but he also co-wrote Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and AD/BC (my pick for funniest single piece of entertainment in human history) and directed a beautiful film called Submarine in 2010. The Double builds on this work, marrying the dark and often surreal comedy of his earlier work with the emotional yearning of his first film. It’s especially impressive for being his second full-length film.
The Double is claustrophobic and dim. It looks like it was shot on film from 1976, and most of the sets look like they were built in abandoned office buildings from some third-tier city in 1960’s Poland. If there’s a light, you better believe it’s either going to be dingy green or bloody red, and it is going to flicker. If a machine can buzz, it buzzes—unless it can clank, in which case it’ll clank louder than anything you’ve ever heard. There is disembodied moaning. Whispers creep in from the edges of the screen. Sometimes it sounds like people are just off-camera sobbing uncontrollably. All of the performances are perfect. Eisenberg is great at both roles. He keeps Simon James empathetic without diluting his creepiness, and his slimy charisma as James Simon has me excited for his take on Lex Luthor. Wallace Shawn is beautifully apoplectic as Simon’s supervisor, and Mia Wasikowska gets to be the first unattainable dreamgirl with at least some agency. Plus most of the cast of Submarine shows up in small roles, and a few of Ayoade’s previous costars cameo.
The obvious parentage here is Brazil, but there are some key differences that are fascinating. Sam Lowry has dreamed about a particular woman all his life, and when he meets her, we are already invested in their relationship. Simon’s fixation on Hannah, however, is just creepy. He’s decided she’s lonely, like him, and references Pinocchio multiple times to prove it. Fine. But he thinks she’s lonely because he follows her constantly and spies on her through a telescope, as his apartment is conveniently across a courtyard from hers. Her discomfort and occasional rejection of Simon doesn’t feel so much like one more element of his sad-sack life, as much as a woman trying to protect her space from a pushy acquaintance.
Where Gilliam’s heroes fight a terrible faceless system, individuals crying out for recognition, Simon is clinging desperately to a life that no sane person would want. He does well at a job he doesn’t seem to like. His mother tells him he’s a disappointment even as he spoons food into her mouth. He has no friends. Hannah doesn’t register his existence as anything other than a sounding board for her own neuroses. Rather than striking out against any of this, he just repeats the same actions each day, hoping for a new, positive outcome. Hoping that people who don’t even see him will suddenly welcome him.
These differences speak to our current world, I think. Gilliam, an idealist who lived through the 60s, wants to rouse as many rabbles as he can. Ayoade is taking a cold look at society now, at how hard people work for a system that has failed them, and gives them their doppelgangers: the pathetic Simon, offering solid work and reliable friendship to people who don’t even recognize him, and the slick, hollow James, using unearned confidence and verbal dexterity to get what he wants, with no thoughts of deeper meaning or connection with those around him. By embracing the absurdity of the story, allowing each uncomfortable moment to linger, and never shying away from the despair just underneath the comedy, Ayoade has given us a perfectly cracked mirror—the dystopia our age deserves.