Pitiless, wickedly clever, and occasionally fascinating, The Double is a cheeky take on Dostoevsky’s 1846 story of a milquetoast clerk who comes face-to-face with a cocky, manipulative jackass who looks just like him.
As startling as Submarine in visual design, eerie environment, and unusual premise, The Double is lit in dusty tones of olive and ochre and scored to vintage Japanese pop. Drenched in a hermetic, Stygian netherworld, it’s offbeat, cruel, nervy, and sinister, both totally bonkers and absurdly funny. It’s also feeble and painfully unoriginal.
As Simon and James, Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland, The Social Network) is unshowily brilliant in his dual role, charming, fragile, boastful, and insecure, while judicious editing helps to maintain the illusion of two actors. The heavy style further demonstrates Eisenberg’s capacity to create self-contained worlds behind the camera. Even so, the quick-speaking Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre, Only Lovers Left Alive), as the twins’ mercurial, flighty object of desire, has the subtler task, and often steals scenes from her co-star.
The Double retains all of the novella’s central themes – madness, alienation, and the loss of identity swirl around the edges like film-noir fog – with writer-director Richard Ayoade injecting a dose of jet-black humour. Vague and slippery, the bleakness is almost satirical. Tapping into a deep reservoir of psychic turmoil even as it navigates the script’s abundant jokes, the nightmare of the heart of the film is undoubtedly universal.
The cruel sense of repetition that sets in is entirely intentional, conveying the weight of society bearing down relentlessly on one individual. It’s a critique of a regimented world of docile consumers enslaved by dehumanizing technology, and invites second looks and closer examination. Beneath all The Double’s cynicism, misanthropy, and distance lies a core of genuine tragedy, and it plays like a nightmare that will leave you spooked, jittery, and confused. It’s bitterly wonderful in how it revels in the decrepit horror of the everyday world.
Yet this workplace-as-hellscape is not new territory, and given the obvious influences, it feels like a facsimile of other films. Kafkaesque, Lynchian, and Gilliam-soaked, with a dash of Charlie Kaufman, Ayoade tips his hat to so many other filmmakers that there’s little room to consider anything other than his efforts to distill all these references into an effective Pinterest board of paranoia. As Ryan Gilbey says wryly, Ayoade has a case of homage overload, and “a 90-minute tour of his DVD collection is no substitute for a film.” Indeed, it’s virtually impossible for something that owes its narrative existence to Dostoevsky and Orwell and its visual and conceptual lifeblood to Brazil and Rear Window to be any kind of masterpiece.
In the end, The Double is a brainteaser rather than a mindblower. Playing like the pale reflection of a more exciting tale, it never brings one close to existential panic, and it’s too chilly to land much purgative punch. It’s a mild pleasure, a diverting style exercise with effective if derivative results.