Richard Ayoade’s ‘The Double’ is based on a classic Fyodor Dostoevsky novel about existential angst and suicidal tendencies, but it’s also a hilariously quirky comedy. That combination shouldn’t be possible, or at least should lead to an ill-conceived mess, yet somehow Ayoade pulls it off in his continued quest to become to most underrated director from Britain.
Given that this dystopic sci-fi comedy fused with European art film influences stars Jesse Eisenberg, it’s safe to say that it will have some awkward human interaction at the center. In fact, as the film opens, Eisenberg delivers his most awkward characterization to date as an office drone in a Kafka/Orwell inspired nightmare future of banal bureaucracy. He’s a sad and pathetic little man, the kind who seems to disappear in broad daylight from being just so damn boring. He has no friends in his private life and is respected by no one at his job. He obsesses over a pretty neighbor and workmate played by Mia Wasikowska, but can barely work up the courage for an awkward conversation. Then one day, a duplicate of Eisenberg shows up in the office, but no one seems to notice that they look exactly alike. Eisenberg 2.0 is everything the protagonist is not: popular, brash, confident, arrogant, cruel, manipulative, a ladies man, and a success. He’s also the only one who notices their striking visual similarities. The duo strike up a friendship. Of course, evil Eisenberg uses it as a means to take advantage of the good Eisenberg and destroy his life.
Right off the bat, it has to be stated that Jesse Eisenberg is excellent in the movie and delivers what might very well be the finest work of his career. Aside from pulling off the acting stunt of playing two characters on the same screen, the script also plays right into the actor’s strengths. He gets to play off of both of his usual personas: the awkwardly adorable Michael Cera type and the brashly sarcastic and possibly sociopathic Mark Zuckerberg type (which increasingly seems like it might be his real life personality). He’s excellent in the role(s) and carries the film admirably. Around him, Ayoade stacks the deck with an array of British and American character actors and comedians like Wallace Shawn and Chris Morris to make every character compelling and hilarious within even a few seconds of screen-time. That’s important, because the filmmaker goes for a tone of constant paranoia, confusion, angst, and yes comedy. It’s a tricky balancing act, but one he pulls off.
As a writer, Ayoade has developed a distinctly deadpan and cynical voice through his TV projects like ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’, his debut feature ‘Submarine‘, and now ‘The Double’. He wears his influences on his sleeve. They’re serious, dark and intellectual, yet Ayoade’s language of expression remains comedy. His latest film plunges into dark corners of the human psyche and raises far more questions that it could ever answer, but throughout it all, the material is almost mysteriously hilarious. It’s an intriguing tone that he’s developed well over the years and the director knows how to get the most from his actors in a deeply intriguing and unpredictable piece of filmmaking.
The only problem with his work is that Ayoade’s directing remains too defined by his influences. ‘Submarine’ was a feature-length homage to Wes Anderson and the French New Wave, while the visual design and tone of ‘The Double’ are so obviously built off of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ and Orson Welles’ ‘The Trial’ as to be distracting. Granted, those are two wonderful influences that Ayoade makes his own effectively, but it’s a slight shame that a filmmaker with such a distinct writing voice seems to direct based on his favorite films rather than his own vision. Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that approach (certainly Quentin Tarantino has made a quite a career out of pastiche), but for Ayoade it’s the only thing holding him back.
There are big laughs, fascinating ideas and deeply unsettling emotions at the heart of ‘The Double’ that continue to establish Ayoade as a filmmaker on the rise. However, it’s time for him to shove his influences aside. Once he does, the guy is going to be something special. At the moment, he’s a director building a cult. That’s a good place to be, but it’s time for him to take the next step and embrace the original voice that has cranked out such wonderful screenplays.