“The Double”: Two Jesse Eisenbergs and one gripping dystopian satire

A faceless bureaucrat meets his suave doppelgänger in Richard Ayoade's stylish, steampunk take on Dostoevsky

Topics: Movies, Comedy, Our Picks, Our Picks: Movies, Jesse Eisenberg, Richard Ayoade, The Double, Mia Wasikowska, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Dystopia,

"The Double": Two Jesse Eisenbergs and one gripping dystopian satire

You’re probably better off seeing Richard Ayoade’s claustrophobic, stylish and black-comic dystopian fantasy “The Double,” featuring two of the most devious performances of Jesse Eisenberg’s career, without hearing too much about it in advance. Although, wait – come to think of it, that puts me in a difficult position, doesn’t it? Forget I said anything. I’ll try not to oversell “The Double,” which has its narrative limitations, but as a pure head-trip visual and auditory experience it feels like one of the biggest discoveries, and biggest surprises, of 2014.

From the film’s first shot of Eisenberg, asleep or comatose on an uninhabited subway car, until an unseen man tells him to move in a voice that sounds like his own, “The Double” strikes a startling mood of dreamlike urgency, in which the boundaries between the waking world and the unconscious seem to have been erased. Maybe the influence of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” looms a bit large in the future-past steampunk nightmare universe of “The Double,” but there are worse sins than that. Anyway, it’s not as if Gilliam’s flawed masterpiece is the only thing on Ayoade’s mind; one could just as easily cite the first “Matrix” movie, “The City of Lost Children,” Michael Radford’s 1984 film of “1984,” David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” and a whole list of 1970s science fiction.



I describe “The Double” as a surprise both because it’s so striking and distinctive and because it seems to come out of nowhere. If you’ve ever heard of Ayoade, it’s almost certainly as a British actor and writer best known for sketch comedy. He played Moss, the biracial guy with big hair, on seven seasons of “The IT Crowd,” and co-created the parody series “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” and “Man to Man With Dean Learner” in the mid-2000s (both of which are hilarious). He turned to filmmaking in 2010 with the teen comedy “Submarine,” which had lovely Welsh-seacoast atmosphere and a terrific cast but felt like an obvious imitation of Wes Anderson-Noah Baumbach indie quirk, transposed to a British context. You could detect cinematic ambition in that movie, along with an actor’s understanding of the craft. But you didn’t see any sign that Ayoade’s next project would be a grim, cryptic Dostoevsky adaptation, laced with large doses of Kafka and Freud.

Yes, “The Double” is based on the Dostoevsky novella of the same name, first published in 1846, one of the earliest and most famous treatments of the doppelgänger theme in European literature. Let’s widen the screen of the meta-verse and note that this is the second film of 2014 to be adapted from a book called ”The Double,” after Denis Villeneuve’s Canadian B-movie freakout “Enemy,” which is based on Nobel laureate José Saramago’s novel (but with extra giant spiders). Each movie is about a man encountering his double, with uncanny effects – it’s Jake Gyllenhaal, in “Enemy” – and in both cases the double is smoother, suaver and more sexually confident than the original. What happens when the two movies encounter each other, beyond an inevitable YouTube mashup, I’m really not sure.

To the extent that Ayoade’s film tells a straightforward narrative, Eisenberg’s primary character is a timid little functionary named Simon James, who goes to work every day at a cubicle job in some sinister info-bureaucracy that makes Neo’s workplace in “The Matrix” look like the Google campus. The openly hostile security guard refuses to recognize Simon day after day, even though he’s worked there for seven years. Simon’s boss, played by Wallace Shawn as a perfect blend of neglect, cluelessness and patronizing attitude, addresses him only as “Stanley.” Simon himself observes that he’s so thin a presence he almost isn’t there; as one of his workplace acquaintances cheerfully says, “No offense, mate, but you’re a bit of a non-person.”

Some publicity materials have described Simon’s workplace as a government agency (as in the Dostoevsky novella), but I don’t think that’s correct. It’s more like a sclerotic, outsize monopoly corporation, presided over by a shadowy autocrat called the Colonel (James Fox, glimpsed rather than seen), one that has entirely forgotten its mission and purpose. It’s the workplace of “The IT Crowd” or “The Office,” grotesquely metastasized to unimaginable size and dominated by clanking, malfunctioning high-low technology that resembles some Soviet bureaucrat’s 1953 vision of the future. (The striking production design is by David Crank, the art direction by Denis Schnegg and the cinematography — on old-school 35mm film! — by Erik Wilson.) Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the vision of loveliness who fills Simon’s thoughts — and at whom he peers, pervert-style, through a telescope at night — works in the copy room, operating a mechanical behemoth that requires her to climb a ladder, and the grinding noises and gruesome lighting of the elevator provide their own current of dark comedy. I kept expecting the thing to open onto the underground lair of Leatherface.

Simon almost seems to be getting somewhere with Hannah, and shows signs of becoming less of a nonperson, when Mr. Papadopoulos (Shawn) gleefully announces the arrival of a young hotshot who’s likely to take over the whole operation one day. This of course is James Simon, and no one except Simon James seems to notice that this popular and charismatic new employee is a dead ringer for someone who already works there. At first, James takes Simon under his wing, coaching him on dates with Hannah, and instructing him in the manly arts of misogynistic abuse and ritual conquest. But of course this superficial friendliness and late-night male bonding is only a step on the road toward supplanting Simon, taking his girlfriend, his apartment and his job, not to mention erasing a self that barely existed in the first place.

It’s great fun to watch Eisenberg play against himself as inverted visions of nerd-dom, and these days the digital tools make such things appear seamless. But I don’t think the Freudian death drama of “The Double” is where Ayoade’s heart lies (he co-wrote the screenplay with Avi Korine, brother of Harmony), and to some degree the plot of Dostoevsky’s novella ends up getting in the way. This movie is about its overarching atmosphere of unexplained psychic dread, its bleak-spectacular aesthetic and its Lynchian use of pop-music marginalia much more than about what happens between the warring Jesses. (It’s also about its peculiar and delightful ensemble, loaded with oddball cameos: Sally Hawkins as a forbidding receptionist, Chris O’Dowd as an armed and fatalistic male nurse, J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. as the laconic janitor in Simon’s building.)

“The Double” offers such a bleak and constricted vision of human possibility that it may not meet too many people’s expectations of comedy. It’s a ruthless social and corporate satire dosed with near-fatal levels of psilocybin; it’s pretty damn funny, but you’re tripping so hard you don’t really notice. I bet it’ll be a lot funnier the second time through, and I look forward to that. As for Richard Ayoade, he’s still working through questions of influence and style, and sorting out his own peculiar blend of Stanley Kubrick and Monty Python. Wherever he wants to go next, I’m there.

“The Double” is now playing at the Sunshine Cinema in New York and the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles. It opens May 14 in Santa Barbara, Calif.; May 16 in Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn, N.Y., Minneapolis, Nashville, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Ana, Calif., and Washington; May 23 in Albuquerque, N.M., Denver, Palm Springs, Calif., Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., Seattle, Spokane, Wash., and Tucson, Ariz.; and May 30 in Grand Rapids, Mich., Hartford, Conn., Miami, Missoula, Mont., and Columbus, Ohio, with more cities to follow. It’s also available on demand from cable, satellite and online providers.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...