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.