“You’re in my place,” a stranger tells the closed-eyed Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) in the opening scene of The Double, director/co-writer Richard Ayoade’s ambitious adaptation of the Dostoevsky novella.
“I’m sorry,” Simon replies, the first of many times he overuses that phrase.
The train, it is revealed, is otherwise unoccupied, adding to the irony of the situation, and the exchange. This is one of many humiliating experiences Simon has in his pitiful life. His briefcase gets caught in the train door. His badge does not allow him entrance to his office, where he has worked for seven years. And no one seems to know him. He encounters trouble in a café, a bar, and even in the nursing home where his mother lives. The only happiness Simon has is spying on Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a comely co-worker who lives in the apartment opposite him, which is a little creepy.
The Double is set in a Kafkaesque environment where Simon claims he is, “unnoticeable,” “a non-person,” and someone “permanently outside” himself. His life changes when he meets his doppelganger, James, who represents the confident kind of man he wants to be and not the milquetoast guy he actually is.
“I don’t know if that’s me,” Simon tells James when the latter prompts the former to do something bold. “That’s why it’s so good,” James retorts, devilishly.
There is some nice frisson between Simon and James, and Eisenberg certainly creates two very different characters—one hesitant, the other fast-talking. The actor is masterful at expressing Simon’s exasperation, and seductive when James is teaching Simon how to be more like himself.
Ayoade’s rigorous exploration of the Simon/James duality it at its best when Simon’s precise language expresses his insecurities only to later entrap him. When Simon says he feels like Pinocchio, a wooden boy, James later uses those words against him.
Simon finds himself in many such Catch-22 situations, as when he is thrown out of a mandatory company party, or not being able to get a new ID card. These episodes are darkly amusing frustration comedy, but on the flip side, they are more likely to irritate viewers with their step-and-repeat regularity.
Ayoade’s film features a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere, with bleak, dimly lit hallways and elevators—that visually express the banality of Simon’s soul-crushing life. The Double is shot in a rich, dark sepia-tone that looks appropriately dull. However, the film is so subdued it may also induce sleep.
Another of the film’s drawbacks is that Simon’s predicament is never especially interesting, or surprising. Of course, James is an exciting character, and there is some mild curiosity about Simon’s relationship with Hannah, but overall, the film is so detached in its presentation that viewers may resist emotional involvement.
Ayoade tries to include twee little bits, such as a Eurotrash band that plays at Simon’s company function, a garish TV show Simon enjoys, and even some witty banter between two cops investigating a suicide, but all of these moments feel a bit forced. Not unlike most of The Double.
The Double opens today in Philly area theaters.