Who’s got two Eisenbergs and knows how to use them? That would be British sitcom star-turned director Richard Ayoade, whose second feature, the dementedly funny and even more unnerving The Double, is a buy one star, get one free affair. Playing opposite himself, Oscar-nominee Jesse Eisenberg puts on a paranoid clinic as a man literally at war with himself – or at least, a version of himself that’s smoother, sexier and more duplicitous than he could ever be. It’s a loopy, occasionally nasty experience that Eisenberg is pulling double-duty to shoulder, but it’s Ayoade who’s the real one to watch, as The Double cements him as one of Britain’s most promising up-and-coming directors.
Though best known in Britain as the endearingly oblivious Moss from The I.T. Crowd, North American viewers may only recognize Ayoade for as his role as the only thing even remotely funny about 2012’s abysmal The Watch. Though the film is, coincidentally, playing second fiddle to another 2014 release using a similar premise and bigger star (that would be Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jake Gyllenhaal), The Double is Ayoade’s chance to make himself known to a wider audience, having recruited a lead big enough to soon be taking on both Batman and Superman in the same movie. The director’s 2010 feature debut, Submarine, a wry but heartfelt coming of age story, suggested a talent for eye-catching visuals and prickly characters, something which The Double confirms, and doubles down on.
The hook is an enticing and familiar one, as The Double is based on a Dostoyevsky novella of the same name. Eisenberg starts out as just Simon James, a harmless, marble-mouthed yutz well into an uninspiring career at a nondescript data management company, located in a nondescript, perpetually nocturnal city, in a nonspecific year that could pass for a high-tech ‘60s, or a lo-fi ‘80s. Simon is the only one aware of how slightly off everything and everyone around him is, probably because no else seems aware Simon even exists. Whereas the rest of the city hums along in clockwork fashion, Simon is a piece of this world that just doesn’t fit. So, like an immune system attacking a foreign body, the world contorts itself around Simon, punishing and victimizing him with impossibly bad luck, a blustering boss (Wallace Shawn, in excellent form here), and a bile-spitting mother (Phyllis Somerville).
One day, a man named James Simon, also played by Eisenberg, suddenly and mysteriously enters the picture, and Simon finds himself in parallel peril. The film spends so long establishing just how pathetic Simon is that, like everyone else, you initially believe James to be a completely different person. Brash, assertive, and libidinous, James and Simon share nothing in common save a face, though they seem to be the only ones aware of the resemblance. While the universe never misses a chance to give Simon the rod, it bends over backwards to spoil James with everything he, and Simon, could possibly want. Though Simon initially tries to learn by James’ example, it’s not long before Simon’s doppelgänger starts working to make him more obsolete than he already is.
One need only look at Eisenberg’s two biggest hits, The Social Network and Zombieland, to see why he’s perfectly capable of balancing charismatic extremes, often within the same scene. Just watching the two of him walking side by side makes the contrast abundantly clear, but the film has its most fun when letting the competing personas play against one another. Two takes on the same date with Simon’s sprightly neighbor, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska, a warm flicker of light amidst the dreariness) end as differently as could possibly be imagined, one with a humiliating retreat to the bathroom, the other with a triumphant race to the bedroom.
The degree to which karma treats Simon as its personal piñata can be off-putting, with James merely accelerating the downward spiral that Simon was already caught in. Timid and awkward as he might be, Ayaode runs Simon through a wringer so brutal it’s borderline cruel, but he’s just following his influences. Whereas Submarine owed mightily to the work of Wes Anderson (and The Double does as well, with every telescope shot and notepad closeup), here Ayoade’s two key points of reference are Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles. From Gilliam he borrows Brazil’s society of banal whimsy, where bathroom hand dryers have stations for individual hands, and suicides are so frequent they require a separate detective squad for each neighborhood. And while the film may be based on Dostoyevsky, it’s just as much in debt to Welles’ adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, an absurdist nightmare of prison cell apartments and inhumane authorities seeking to trap the only seemingly sane man alive.
Ayoade’s not just cherry picking from the best though, and his own unique style is literally starting to shine through. You might not find a more pronounced or interesting use of coloured lighting in theatres this year, with The Double relying heavily on stained yellows and deep marine blues to mix-up the intentionally lifeless surroundings. Also welcome is the deep stable of terrific pinch-hitters Ayoade puts to use, which includes pretty much the entire cast of Submarine in roles of varying size and importance. You could point to the ringers as being just another co-opted Anderson-ism, but Ayoade is fast on his way to establishing a few tricks of his own: if his next picture doesn’t feature the lead looking for the answer to their problems in a whirlpooling body of water, I’ll be surprised.
It’s something of a shame that The Double’s chosen brand of black comedy is so unrepentantly harsh, preferring to see the audience squirm uncomfortably in its seat than rolling in the aisles. It’s a crafty piece of work that’s got all the qualities of a resume-builder, and none of a breakout hit. The Double is unlikely to win Ayoade or Eisenberg any new fans, but those already in the fold will enjoy this trippy pill for all it’s worth, bitter though it might be.
The entertaining Eisenberg-on-Eisenberg action makes The Double a grim delight, but it's Ayoade's work behind the camera that proves he's the one to watch.