The world of The Double is aggressively bleak. It’s always night, for one thing, and pale pools of yellow light make everyone look sickly. The film’s retro science fiction is a reminiscent Brazil, except Terry Gilliam at least had the mercy to populate his sets with inventive flourishes. Working from a Dostoevsky novella, director Richard Ayoade is more relentless: there is a minimalist vision here that’s admirable. The look of his film is depressing, through and through, but at least he has a sense of humor about it his main character. The hero of The Double is easy to identify with, and the joke is that he also happens to be a loser.
The workplace in The Double is soul-crushing, the sort of place that focuses on results and not humanity. Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is just another cog in his office, one whose brilliant ideas will never get noticed by his domineering, indifferent boss (Wallace Shawn). Simon suffers one indignity after another, whether he’s deal with a cramped apartment or an indifferent waitress (Cathy Moriarty). The only positive thing in his life is Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who works in the office copy room. Simon screws up his copy orders just so he can talk to her: he’s a beta-male that will only get noticed in the way that a wet dog might.
One day Simon notices the new employee. His name is James Simon, and he is an exact copy of Simon, except he has an engaging personality. Simon is the only one who’s disturbed by James’ existence, and they form an uneasy bond based on mutual need: Simon helps James with work, while James helps Simon with the ladies. The arrangement lasts until Simon realizes that James is deceiving him in an exceptionally mean way.
Ayoade’s command of atmosphere and tone is masterful. The Double looks like the spawn of a dystopia and a pulverizing film noir. There are shots here that are quietly beautiful – the combination of smoke and light is particularly effective – and no visual detail is out of place. The technology here is counter-intuitive and rudimentary, while the costumes are more awkward than bespoke. With the exception of Simon and possibly Hannah, the supporting characters fit lock-step into pitiless universe. There is a bleakly funny scene where two detectives advise Simon not to commit suicide, and they’re like bored automatons, not public servants who are capable of empathy. In other words, everything in The Double is meant to feel like an exhausting nightmare. Simon bears the burnt, and Eisenberg elevates his everyman status so he’s almost a hero. Almost.
Without Eisenberg, the movie would be too much to bear. It works because Simon suffers quietly; he rarely complains, or lashes out. And when James appears, the dual performances are droll because Simon/James could not be more different. There is a memorable scene where James forces Simon to a party, and Simon’s clipped, confident dialogue only barely hides the fact he’s an asshole. The Double suffers from an inevitable trajectory – of course James veers into villain territory, and of course Simon rises to the occasion with meek defiance – but plot issues are ancillary thanks to a consistent, unique sense of mood and place.
The Double is not only recent adaptation of revered doppelganger classic. Enemy also has yellow-tinged cinematography and a more confident copy of a loner protagonist, yet Villeneuve is more interested in allegory and psychology, not mood. If Enemy is more interested in playing a joke on its audience, then The Double is more interested in playing a joke on its hero. The fun is deciding which approach is more cruel.