Film Review: “The Double” — Solid, Knot-in-the-stomach, Dostoyevskian Fun.

The movie intelligently reimagines the Dostoyevsky novella while retaining the emotional turmoil at its core. It’s a brilliantly executed pitch-black comedy.

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The Double, directed by Richard Ayoade.

In "The Double"

“The Double”: Jesse Eisenberg is an office worker whose miserable life is sent into crisis mode when his doppelganger is hired to work alongside him.

By Betsy Sherman

His Submarine (2010) was arguably the best teenage-boy-coming-of-age comedy since Rushmore. But could British director-writer-actor Richard Ayoade step up to the challenge of adapting Dostoyevsky? After all, there’s anguish and then there’s A-N-G-U-I-S-H. With his second feature The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg as an office worker whose miserable life is sent into crisis mode when his doppelganger is hired to work alongside him, Ayoade proves he’s got the chops. The movie intelligently reimagines the Dostoyevsky work while retaining the emotional turmoil at its core. It’s a brilliantly executed pitch-black comedy.

The assailed protagonist of the novella, the fatuous and delusional St. Petersburg clerk Golyadkin, fears that his loose-cannon look-alike will ruin his reputation. A mocking tone towards the “hero” is established from the get-go. The Double has been filmed before, notably by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1968 as Partner, a tense drama set amidst the student revolts going on even as it was being filmed. Our 21st-century Double is less about paranoia and politics than it is about loneliness and growing into one’s own humanity. Eisenberg’s meek, bundle-of-nerves Golyadkin counterpart, Simon James, is treated with more sympathy by his creators than the Russian was by his—although there are times he’s such a doormat you want to smack him.

Neither the year nor the place is specified. The production has a 1940s-imagines-the-1980s aesthetic that suggests Orwell via Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Technology-wise, 1984 is about right: in the movie, computers are becoming accessible, but the Internet isn’t. The firm Simon works for touts data processing as the new way to know about people: its uniformed figurehead, played by James Fox, is a plummy Colonel Sanders of bits and bytes.

Simon is a classic schlemiel. He exists in a sort of willingly entered-into gulag: his workplace, tiny apartment, and the subway that connects them are all bleak and claustrophobic (the movie was shot during the nighttime at an abandoned office park in southeast England). For kicks, he can go get treated (hilariously) badly at the local greasy spoon. Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine (brother of Harmony Korine) successfully expand the cast of characters to include a leading lady, Simon’s co-worker and neighbor Hannah (Mia Wasikowska gives depth to this nice-girl role). Women were pretty much off-stage in the book, and sex was just a subtext. Simon’s inability to act on his feelings for Hannah, contrasted with his double’s ease with women, brings sex right up to the forefront. Simon is impotent in just about any sense in which the word can be used. The farthest he gets with Hannah is pointing a phallic telescope across the courtyard at her window.

One day, a new guy arrives: James Simon (also Eisenberg), a self-confident charmer. Same face, same body, same clothes: Simon faints at the sight of him. At first, no one else notices the similarity. Even after Simon points it out, no one cares. James’ body language, his vibe, is so different from Simon’s. The interplay between Simon and James is a surreal delight, and a tour de force by Eisenberg. It’s never a black-and-white Jekyll and Hyde relationship; before James’ breezy cunning becomes a threat to Simon both professionally and in his slowpoke pursuit of Hannah, there’s a friendship between these mirror images. After a night on the town (limited though it is), James sleeps it off in Simon’s bed; Simon pulls up a chair and gazes at his new twin with fascination, and with tenderness. Still, with Simon’s grasp on his own identity slipping (an ID malfunction shows he’s been “erased by the system”), and the local suicide investigators keeping a pre-emptive eye on him, the time will come when he has to fight for his place among the living.

The non-verbal elements employed by Ayoade and his team to wrest comedy out of Dostoyevsky’s dark tale are particularly impressive. Whatever on the set isn’t obscured by shadows is infected by a pissy yellow light (Hannah, working at a copier, has momentary escapes when bathed in blue). At times, the effect is theatrical: a transition from one location to the next is effected by obscuring, then revealing, the backdrop behind Simon. The wardrobe, hair and make-up of the film’s gargoyle-like supporting characters suggests Aki Kaurismaki and Federico Fellini (among the cast are Wallace Shawn as a petty-tyrant middle manager, Cathy Moriarty as a waitress and Phyllis Somerville as Simon’s mother). Perhaps even more important than the visuals is the sound design, in which dehumanizing noise, when skillfully used, is also painfully comical. It all makes for solid, knot-in-the-stomach fun.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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