With Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky as inspiration, "The Double," starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska, is a darkly ironic and skillfully surreal examination of an unrealized life.
It is an impressive second film from British director Richard Ayoade, who continues to spend considerable time in front of the camera, where he began his career. As much as his on-screen presence adds a distinctive quirk factor, I have to say I like it even better when he runs the show.
"Submarine," Ayoade's directing debut, is one of the more unusual modern romances you are likely to run across. From story to style, both of Ayoade's films put you in mind of a director like Wes Anderson, who develops a particular aesthetic. Ayoade knows what he is going for, and most of the time he knows how to get there.
Unlike Dostoevsky's densely plotted novella, the screenplay, written by Ayoade and Avi Korine ("Mister Lonely"), is spare. As is the look of the film. Hallways are empty, rooms are austere, rarely does a prop make it into the frame unless there is a reason for it. There is a muted patina that leans toward a nondescript brown. Like Simon (Eisenberg), our seriously repressed man, it is as if the color is trying not to disturb.
Except that is exactly the effect. With a crack creative team that includes director of photographer Erik Wilson, production designer David Crank, costume designer Jacqueline Durran and composer Andrew Hewitt's haunting score, the filmmaker creates an unsettling sense that something is not right.
It is not. With a splash of "Rear Window"-esque tension, "The Double" begins digging into what happens when a quiet and guarded observer of the world is confronted and soon competing with a charismatic and charming better version of himself. Only the name, James, and the attitudes are different.
Eisenberg plays both men and does a remarkable job creating a sharp emotional distinction between them. You never confuse one for the other even though they look, sound and dress exactly alike.
The double exposure also makes the film feel like we are going into a place out of time.
There are modern elements — the opening scene finds Simon in an empty subway car dozing off. But others feel dated, the giant Xerox machine at the office manned by the secretarial pool for one.
The shadow of a man moves through his days separated from the rest of the world by insecurities that make his interactions awkward and often ignored. It takes all of his courage to suggest a coffee date to Hannah (Wasikowska), the girl he pines over, which is an improvement from his habit of watching her through a telescope at night. His apartment window, in Hitchcockian fashion, faces hers.
Simon's life is radically changed by two events. The first, a suicide he witnesses one night while spying on Hannah. The second is the appearance of James, his carbon copy.
The irony slips in with some stealth. A particular conversation between Simon and Hannah is typical: Simon pressing her to see the similarities between he and James, Hannah trying to describe the way personality traits define the individual.
Ayoade keeps "The Double" running on parallel tracks. One is psychological thriller as James increasingly co-opts Simon's life and Simon struggles to resist; you just know it will end badly. The other is the conceit itself, taking that inner conflict between knowing the real you and wishing for something grander, and making it appear, like magic, in concrete form.
The actors move through scenes and situations with a kind of cadence that has the feel of a chess game — they are the pieces, Ayoade the player. Even the roles around the edges are well cast: Wallace Shawn as the boss, dismissing Simon out of hand, then praising and promoting James with the right amount of bluster; a wonderfully deadpan Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as the security guard, absolutely maddening in the indiscriminate way he enforces company rules.
But it is the interplay between Wasikowska and Eisenberg that gives "The Double" both its tension and its charm as Simon and James vie for her affection — one with the best of intentions, one with the worst. Their struggle captivates, the resolution shocks, and you can't help but wonder what windmills Ayoade will tilt next.
MPAA rating: R for language
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes