Directed by Richard Ayoade
Written by Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (novella)
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn
When we open on Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) in Richard Ayoade’s magnificent new comedy/drama/fever dream, he’s sitting in a train, eyes closed, clutching a briefcase. His overlarge suit only accentuates his thin and vulnerable frame, which he carries as compactly as possible. Bolt-upright, arms held close to his sides, he looks like a man who expects to be fired out of a cannon at any moment. An unseen stranger tells Simon he’s sitting in his spot. And when Simon meekly stands up to forfeit his seat, we see that every other seat on the dingy, ancient-looking train is open. Then, at Simon’s stop, two men stand in the doorway loading boxes onto the train without taking notice of Simon trying to get off. They take so long that the train doors clench on Simon’s briefcase just as he disembarks. The train speeds away, along with the case.
Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine loosely based ‘The Double’ on an 1846 Dostoyevsky novella of the same name, but audiences would be forgiven for thinking that they based it on a nightmare. Indeed, just minutes in, when a skeptical security guard almost refuses to let Simon into his workplace of seven years—Simon’s missing briefcase contained his secondary ID, and apparently one ID isn’t good enough when you’re as unremarkable as Simon—audience members might question whether they’re witnessing Simon’s dream. The company’s primitive computers, if they are computers, look like what NASA scientists might once have used, had NASA been around in the 1940s. Corridors are narrow. The employees are mostly geriatric, emphasizing how out of place Simon is. It seems to be dead midnight, even though Simon is just starting his workday. It’s not exactly clear what anyone does there, or even what city they’re in. Simon’s boss (Wallace Shawn) tasks Simon with educating his petulant daughter in the ways of the business—and calls Simon “Stanley” in the process. Indeed, nobody seems to notice or respect Simon, including Simon’s crush, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a solitary and willowy creature who, in addition to being Simon’s only similarly-aged colleague, also happens to live across from his apartment. Like in a bad dream, everything is a bit unclear, a bit unstuck in time and place—and good things seem just out of reach.
But if this is a nightmare, then it’s a waking one. And it only gets worse when a new coworker shows up: Where Simon James is timid and passive, James Simon is assertive and confident. People gravitate toward him. Along with his remarkably similar name, he happens to look alarmingly like Simon James—in large part because he’s also played by Jesse Eisenberg, without so much as a different wardrobe or hairstyle. But no one seems to notice the connection, except when Simon points it out. One coworker tells Simon that the resemblance never occurred to him because Simon is a “bit of a non-person.”
What makes “The Double” different than other body-double movies, from ‘Freaky Friday’ to ‘Face-Off,’ is that it doesn’t play up the fantasticalness of its premise; it plays up the indignity. James Simon doesn’t come out of nowhere to kickstart Simon James’s character arc. Rather, he seems like a logical next step, just another in a long line of humiliations, fitting in tonally and substantively with everything that preceded his entrance into the film. “The Double” is about more than the wacky shenanigans of two doppelgangers: It’s about a man who looks at his mirror image and becomes painfully aware of his own limitations. It’s about overcoming that one overarching obstacle in life: You.
Like everyone else, Simon James soon becomes taken with James Simon. It’s his confidence, his ease with women. James speaks in firm tones, acts on his desires, and gets what he wants. Case in point: When James suckers Simon into taking a work-related aptitude exam for him—they look the same, so who’s going to know?—James fills in for Simon in instructing the boss’s daughter. She had nothing but contempt for Simon, but after a few slick lines, she wants to jump James’s bones. James happily obliges.
Simon even tells James that he has feelings for Hannah, but that all he’s done so far is spy on her through his window with a telescope. He feels a special kinship with her, he explains, because he believes they share a unique sense of isolation, as if neither of them is quite real. James volunteers some Cyrano de Bergerac-style help, but that arrangement quickly disintegrates when James sweeps Hannah off her feet himself, largely by expressing Simon’s empathetic sentiments as his own.
James does the same thing at work, stealing Simon’s ideas and using them for his own advancement. The boss proceeds to grant James huge promotions, but loses respect for Simon by the day. Simon even continues to have difficulty convincing the security guard to let him in the building. And only then, at the the brink of utter irrelevance, does Simon begin to fight back, insisting that he is real after all.
Central to the film is the idea that just because a man possesses value, either professionally or as a potential romantic partner, that doesn’t mean he’ll have the wherewithal to make his presence felt. Like the dreamscape in which Simon lives, the real world prizes appearances, and a charismatic empty suit will often beat out those more deserving. Only by rising above his own limitations can Simon claw his way out of the bizarre traps he finds himself in.
Eisenberg’s performance(s) infuse the struggle with jarring urgency. He brings an infuriating, chilly smugness to James. Imagine how Eisenberg might have played Mark Zuckerberg in ‘The Social Network,’ had that character’s gargantuan ego not been tempered by crippling insecurities. James’s constant smirk will get under the audience’s skin as much as it does Simon’s. And Eisenberg portrays Simon with a simmering frustration boiling over into mania, his mannerisms and speech patterns becoming more and more agitated as Simon succumbs to the world’s most literal identity crisis.
Thanks to Ayoade and cinematographer Erik Wilson, the film’s eerie visuals forcefully communicate claustrophobia and isolation. Simon always seems to be hemmed in by walls on three sides, the camera effectively serving as the fourth. Yet Simon also tends to be alone, often separated from others by doors and windows. He is at once trapped in this world, and an outcast within it. And daylight never seems to touch the film; rooms and faces bathe in shadow. Meanwhile, Andrew Hewitt’s score—at times as plodding and inexorable as the thump of heavy machinery, at times as sharp, urgent and strings-driven as Bernard Hermann’s Psycho suite—hammers home the intermittent drudgery and horror of Simon’s curious existence.
Ultimately, James shows Simon what Simon lacks—but also what he doesn’t. Simon isn’t a worthless ghost; he’s just been living as one. And only by triumphing over his doppelganger can he ever hope to change things. Maybe that’s the most provocative thing that “The Double” has to say about the nature of personal struggle: Only by overcoming our worst selves can we become our best selves. We are our own worst nightmares.
— David Teich