Directed by Richard Ayoade
This season, moviegoers are being treated to quite the doppelgänger double feature: in Denis Villeneuve’s recent Enemy (adapting José Saramago and featuring Jake Gyllenhaal), a history professor encounters an actor who looks just like him, touching off cold-sweat panic over the instability of identity and fidelity; in British director Ayoade’s new movie (drawing on Dostoyevsky and starring Jesse Eisenberg), drone worker Simon James must confront his self-defeating tendencies when the identical James Simon appears. The former film takes place in an overcast Toronto with a surreal underbelly, and the latter in an unnamed urban zone that’s all discontinuous interiors. Even in a dystopic cityscape, it seems, nothing occasions more dread than the self’s competing instincts.
The Double, written by Ayoade and Avi Korine (brother of Harmony, who’s a producer here), is more approachable than the jagged Enemy, and it has a more traditional dramatic structure, but that’s not to say the film lacks for ambition of its own. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ayoade’s movie is that his cut-and-paste world feels so cohesive. Simon works in a cube farm where the data-processing machines resemble nothing so much as iron lungs, a document mill that suggests the Industrial Revolution has had a hangover well into the Information Age; after quitting time, he eats in a noir-lighted diner before retiring to his sparsely furnished one-room box of an apartment. While bearing the influence of past decades’ expressively gloomy sci-fi, The Double also has a hint of stiff Kaurismäkian deadpan, not to mention low-grade Modern Times malfunction slapstick, in its portrayal of a workaday choked by bureaucratic and mechanical process. And then there are the cameos: J Mascis rolls a janitor’s bucket past a building’s incinerator, Paddy Considine appears as some sort of intergalactic badass in an always-on TV show, and Ayoade’s fellow IT Crowd cast member Chris O’Dowd turns up doing hospital paperwork.
It’s against this backdrop that Simon meets the charming lout James, bristling with confidence and possessing no regard for anyone but himself. Simon’s boss calls him by the wrong name (Stanley), while James gets promoted for work that Simon toiled over. Simon pines for flighty copy-room assistant Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), but that doesn’t stop the womanizing James from attempting to make her yet another conquest. The Double comes to concern Simon’s attempts to gain the upper hand in this struggle against his two-faced twin, and he’s easy to root for on account of Eisenberg’s typically appealing self-effacement (as James, the actor removes any and all hesitations in his speech), making the movie work in the relatively unusual dark-comedy-of-self-actualization vein. At one point, Simon confesses to feeling “permanently outside myself,” and Ayoade is able to get inside that sense. More than an existential freakout, his film addresses the anxiety that the daily grind might be stamping out what’s human about its subordinates.
Opens May 9 at the Sunshine