RICHARD Ayoade’s first film, 2011’s Submarine, shuffled bashfully through the beaches and bedrooms of suburban seaside adolescence, stopping for cuddles, puppy love and the odd mumbled voice-over. For his second, loose Dostoevsky adaptation The Double, he dives arms flailing into the chaotic nightmare of adult anomie. It is a nervous breakdown, a fitful writhe around the anxious peripheries of consciousness, and it is brilliant. Derivative as hell but brilliant.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, an insignificant but conscientious cog in an elaborately bureaucratic company. He is sweetly meek, a terminably hesitant worker-bee too shy even to buzz. When he’s not drawing up reports he’s admiring the beautiful Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) through a telescope in his bedroom. She barely registers his existence.
It wouldn’t have been a stretch for the casting director to place Eisenberg in the role of Simon. But with the arrival of his evil double (James Simon) we get to see a different side to the actor, a dangerous, sexier side that he evidently enjoys unleashing.
James has the gift of the gab and a way with the ladies. He seems to embody everything that Simon lacks and ruthlessly invades every area of his life. Soon enough he’s overtaken him at work and won the heart of Hannah. Simon pleads with everyone to recognise the identity theft that’s just taken place in broad daylight, but colleagues, love interests and even his ageing mother dismiss him.
In wanting to create something striking and original, Ayaode inadvertently creates a film that positively reeks of other striking and original films. There’s the smokey darkness of David Lynch, the steam-punk claustrophobia of Terry Gilliam and the mannered choreography of Wes Anderson.
The derivativeness is particularly noticeable because atmosphere is the entire point. Without narrative momentum propelling us forward, we’re pulled deep, deep down into Simon’s madness.
The success of the Double lies in its vivid evocation of this madness and the faultless rendering of an aesthetic which, admittedly, is borrowed from other directors. Ayoade may lose marks for unoriginality but he deserves a gold star for execution.