I feel for Simon James, protagonist of The Double. A meek fellow prone to anxiety and self-doubt, he’s adrift in a bleak dystopian world. People constantly forget his name. Sometimes they forget he exists. He throws himself into his job, as if to justify his existence, but he’s mired in the role of worker bee. It’s a predicament that would drive many people mad, and it gets a whole lot worse.
The film is an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s excellent 1866 novella, modernized and stylized by Richard Ayoade, star of the devastatingly funny British sitcoms The IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Like his previous film, the 2010 coming-of-age tale Submarine, The Double has been marketed as a drama, but it’s also a blacker-than-black comedy. As the story unfolds, the misfortunes plaguing Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) become increasingly absurd. It’s both infuriating and intoxicating to watch.
The weirdness begins when Simon’s briefcase gets caught in the door of a train, which absconds with his employee ID. He asks a security guard to let him into the government agency where he works. Though he’s had the same job for seven years, the guard doesn’t recognize him and a struggle ensues. Simon spends his days pining for Hannah (Mia Waskikowska), a coworker who lives in the building across the street from his apartment, but she barely acknowledges his presence. And no matter how hard he works, he can’t get his boss to realize his name’s not Stanley.
When Simon notices that a new employee looks just like him, he can’t believe his eyes. The resemblance is purely physical, though. The look-alike, James Simon (also Eisenberg), is a charismatic chick magnet. He oozes confidence, so much that people ascribe success to him instantly, even if he hasn’t earned it. Before long, James has Simon doing all of his work as he rolls in the hay with Hannah, the boss’ daughter and others. Meanwhile, Simon’s on the verge of a meltdown, not that anyone would notice.
You will notice, of course, but you are not part of Simon’s reality, which Ayoade casts in the yellows, browns and grays of Nighthawks, Edward Hopper’s famous painting of four strangers avoiding each other in a diner. Dim, buzzing lights and a hazy psych-pop soundtrack make the proceedings seem antique and somewhat artificial, like a half-remembered dream.
Ayoade has clearly studied the shadowy aesthetics of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam, but he also seems taken with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. Certain details, like the telescope Simon uses to peer into Hannah’s apartment and the book he lovingly makes from her torn-up drawings, are very similar to those in Jeunet’s tale of a shy Frenchwoman. But Amélie gains whimsy from its subject’s colorful imagination, whereas The Double focuses on the dark side of Simon’s identity crisis. Even if you identify with Simon’s plight, you may glimpse your inner James as you chuckle at Simon’s troubles.