A few years ago The I.T. Crowd star Richard Ayoade made his directorial debut with the wonderful Submarine, a charming film about young love borne out of isolation. Now he follows up his triumphant debut with a true oddity of a film, one that doesn’t quite hang together as a whole but is never short of interesting throughout.
Based on the novella written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Double follows Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) a shy and by all accounts ordinary office worker whose life is one day turned upside down upon the arrival of James Simon (also Eisenberg), a charming new employee at the company who appears to be his doppelgänger. The trouble is everyone seems to love his double who soon begins to meddle and practically take over his life.
The influence of other director’s work on Ayoade’s latest effort is extremely evident, not least of which is Terry Gilliam and particularly his masterpiece Brazil. From its nervy average Joe leading character to its nightmarish old-meets-new officious world, the film almost feels like a direct descendant of that dystopian vision, albeit a far less disciplined one.
Ayoade’s film is one of individual moments rather than a cohesive satisfying whole and feels like somewhat of a regression from his accomplished debut. Where Submarine felt sure of its own identity – as much as it was influenced by the likes of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, it also felt very much like its own brand of idiosyncratic – The Double feels caught between a mass of ideas and never quite settles on a through-line to make it truly satisfying as an overall cinematic experience. Is it a film truly about isolation? Paranoia? Self-destruction? It hints at all of these things but often sorely lacks subtlety – such as when a character explicitly states to Simon that he’s “pretty unnoticeable, a bit of a non-person” – and never quite puts its finger on any of them during its increasingly perplexing plot.
There’s definite worth to be found throughout, however, not least in the cast. While perhaps the doppelgänger character may have required an actor with more gravitas than Eisenberg to pull off the overbearing, sinister qualities the role demands, he’s brilliant in the lead role. Mia Wasikowska is also very good as Simon’s would-be girlfriend who, like most of the cast, we’re never quite sure of her agenda or even if she’s real and not just a figment of our put-upon hero’s imagination. There’s a joy to be had in simply spotting the character actors that turn up throughout including Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige, all of whom appeared in his previous film.
Ayoade employs some eclectic methods to unnerve the audience – the split-screen doubling effect is particularly clever and utterly seamless – and he succeeds overall at creating a palpable sense of menace and atmosphere, setting his follow-up feature in a world that sits somewhere between the aforementioned Brazil and David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive. The latter even carries through to its plot that, like both of Lynch’s film, culminates in a way that will leave you scratching your head but unlike them in that it never has any sort of emotional impact. The simultaneously futuristic and vintage production design, performances and surreal, other worldly atmosphere are just about enough sustain a film that never feels sure of what it wants to be, what it wants to say or how it wants to say it.
The Double is released in UK cinemas on April 4th.