Richard Ayoade is most widely known for his performances in the Brit-com The IT Crowd and the Ben Stiller vehicle The Watch. But in 2010, this English comedian turned filmmaker with the critically adored coming-of-age dramedy Submarine. Now, he brings us his buzzed-about follow-up, an adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoevsky novella The Double. Unfortunately, this doppelganger tale too closely resembles its influences to distinguish itself.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Simon James and James Simon. The former is a timid office drone with an ardent but unspoken affection for Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), his co-worker and neighbor. The latter is in every way Simon's double when it comes to their physical nature. Both even wear the same frumpy, oversized suit. But where Simon is timid, James is aggressive. Simon works hard; James goofs off. Simon is an introvert whose sexual urges are fulfilled through spying on Hannah through a telescope perched on his apartment's windowsill. Meanwhile, James gets off with every female the plot puts him in contact with. When James first shows up as a new employee at Simon's workplace, they begin as uneasy friends. But as James gobbles up the promotions, esteem, and love Simon so desperately craves, a reckoning becomes inevitable.
There's a seductive style and enchanting dark streak to The Double. Ayoade establishes a bleak world where suicide is so rampant that it demands its own overtaxed police branch. Simon lives in a place that's awash with drab colors, making Hannah--with her crisp white dresses and fingertips stained with red ink--stand out like a beacon of hope. But there's something very familiar in the cramped and crudely cobbled together office spaces. The machinery seems like steampunk without the bravado. And the more of it I saw the more I thought of the dingy, distinctive dystopian worlds created by Terry Gilliam in Brazil--which memorably also focuses on a disgruntled office worker--and 12 Monkeys. The theatrical yet awkward patter of its dialogue is also reminiscent of Gilliam's style. Even Ayoade's hero seems Gilliam-like in his ever-disheveled suits and wide-eyed wish for a future where he is recognized not as a cog but as an individual. But Gilliam isn't the only auteur Ayoade steals from in The Double. Alfred Hitchcock is another obvious source of inspiration.
The Double's plot of a man caught up in a mystery and being tormented by his apparent double would certainly appeal to the master of suspense. But Ayoade's allusions to Hitchcock are far more blatant that this. For one thing, Simon's voyeurism is straight from Rear Window. Not only in his actual actions of obsessively spying on his neighbors' across the lot, but also the location chosen is reminiscent of Hitchcock's, as are the shot choices for these scenes. Additionally, Hannah with her demure dresses and gentle blond locks, looks strikingly similar to Hitchcock's classic blondes. And like many of them she exists in the film solely to influence the journey of a white male hero caught up in a world he flails to comprehend.
Frankly, these influences and allusions became overwhelming to me, reminding of great movies I'd rather be watching. If you strip away these referential flourishes, there's not much left to The Double. Sure, Eisenberg deftly spins from Simon to James, doormat to alpha male, without missing a beat. But both characters feel similar to what we've seen from him before, in Zombieland and The Social Network. As Hannah, Wasikowska is lovely and manages to bring some depth into a character that seems underwritten as a predictable bane to a "nice guy" (ahem, stalker) like Simon. But as this briskly paced dark comedy races towards its climax, I realized I didn't feel invested in any of the characters. Though I had enjoyed some of its visuals and a few gags, I was ultimately left feeling nothing during its climax.
Stuffed to the brim with style and a purposefully tattered beauty, The Double starts off strong, presenting a compelling world and a flawed but potentially fascinating character. However, Ayoade gets carried away with nods to other films. And before long, The Double is a little more than a pretty pastiche that nails the style of its influences but lacks their emotional weight.