In 1968’s Partner, Bernardo Bertolucci put a canny twist on Dostoevsky’s The Double, setting the action in 1960s Italy, among student protests against Vietnam. Fractious and unromantic, Bertolluci’s rendering of political revolt as both inherently self-serving and righteous echoed the searing sense of working-class psychology ingrained in the source material without being beholden to the details of the story itself. To a degree, the same thing could be said about The Double, Richard Ayoade’s adaptation of the same novella, as the filmmaker builds the story into a nondescript otherworld, ruled over by an all-consuming bureaucracy, but it’s in service to a mood of unerring misery that’s never given compelling context. Whatever the film’s interest may be in the marginalized, the writer-director never alludes to what would even be worth fighting for in this nightmarish industrial landscape. In the absence of any sense of hope or good, the potent cynicism of The Double seems childish and frustratingly thin.
Ayoade builds the world around Simon as a complex of identical hovels, decrepit factories, and dreary offices that stretches out into seeming infinity and exists in endless night. One occupant of this dystopia is Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), a workaday drone who depends on his job as a clerk and is belittled and antagonized by every square foot of his surroundings. Indeed, the grimly stylized environs Ayoade realizes, often encrusted in grime and filth, seem calculated to strip Simon of his already meager confidence. Technology rules over everything, but nothing ever seems to pan out for Simon, whose work is ignored while he’s glad-handled into staying in his miniscule position. What’s worse, he arrives at work one day to find himself working alongside his doppelganger (Eisenberg), who quickly usurps and takes advantage of Simon’s intellect and diligence to cozy up to the company’s head honchos (James Fox and Wallace Shawn).
Ayoade has trouble hiding his influences. The harsh yellow lighting seems ripped from The Element of Crime, while the elliptical structure and the paranoid, desolate design of Simon’s world evokes both Eraserhead and The Tenant. The film’s most direct touchstone, however, is clearly Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a film which backs its exquisite design and inventive conception with a devastating humanism. Ayoade may occasionally allude to the unrest of his characters, such as when Simon attempts to expose his double’s deceit, but more times than not he fetishizes Simon’s degradation. Indeed, Simon can’t even walk through the entrance to work without being hassled or embarrassed by security personnel, and the waitress at the local diner, who presumably works off tips, doesn’t even feel the need to offer him common courtesy.
In a sense, the film comes at a serendipitous time for Eisenberg, who’s recently started venturing into major franchises and blockbuster fair. His performance here suggests wisdom, as if he’s seeing himself as a showboat performer utilizing his talents for position and wealth rather than introspection. It’s evident in the way he stares longingly at the gaudy action hero (Paddy Considine) of his favorite television show and then is essentially horrified by his double, whose cool strut is similar to that of Considine’s bad-ass. Eisenberg seems somewhat aware of the reflexive nature of the subject matter, but Ayoade’s interest is more in the parable’s sense of societal rage, which he only considers in limited scope. The fatalism and dread of the story, and the victimization of its impish protagonist, remain his primary focus, even as Simon revolts against his fate. Would that this gloomy drama didn’t feel so rigidly pre-determined, as The Double might have come off as a genuine lament rather than a pessimistic tantrum.