If Ayoade’s debut film Submarineplayed mind games with its psychedelic, black humour, then The Double hurtles the brain into a vortex of paranoia.
Based on a Dostoyevsky short story (which I admit to not having read), Ayoade creates a dystopian nightmare where Simon James, a nerdy computer programmer, finds his life is taken over by his doppelgänger, James Simon (both played in brilliant opposition by Jesse Eisenberg – the irony of yet another geeky role for the star of The Social Network).
The nightmare unfolds from the get-go, where Simon is not even sufficiently assertive to disembark the metro to stalk the unrequited love of his life, enigmatic co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), to his arrival at the office, where he has become a non-person despite clocking in daily for seven years. The Stalin-esque security guard thwarts him at every opportunity; even the lift rejects him. We cringe in sympathy, but want to shake him!
Using an early form of the computer, Simon plugs in data, day in, day out, surrounded by a gaggle of elderly gents, goaded by his boss, Mr Papadopolous (Wallace Shawn). The spectre of the owner, The Colonel (James Fox), is omnipresent, a creepy cult business icon akin to L. Ron Hubbard, Hugh Heffner or even Colonel Sanders himself.
Catapulted into this daily grind is James Simon who, apart from being his exact physical double, is everything Simon James would wish to be: witty, gregarious, a magnet to women and smart – so smart he steals Simon’s work to become the Colonel’s darling, and, predictably, steals the girl. But no one seems to notice the physical similarity – so grey is Simon James. The very stuff of one’s deepest workplace angst.
Ayoade deftly creates this dark universe, much starker than in The Hunger Games, and more Kafka than Dostoyevsky, and resonates with my Czech grandfather Hermann Ungar’s work, The Classw.goodreads.com/book/show/440954.The_Class, although the obsession with suicide is very Russian. As Simon James testifies to the man he saw waving and jumping, the two cops reveal with good old schadenfreude that they ‘only do’ suicides. ‘You’ll be next,’ they assert gleefully.
Simon’s world is dingy and dank: from the apartment blocks where the workers live in a single room, with a bathroom cubicle; the dark, smog-filled alleys; to the café where Simon finds it impossible to be served the simplest order (unlike James who can order breakfast in the evening) and where the only lightness is a sci fi soap opera, his only pleasure in life. It’s not surprising that he longs to be his alter ego, at first befriending him, even resorting to that Cyrano de Bergerac trick of asking him to woo the lovely Hannah on his behalf.It all sounds toe-curlingly grim and depressing. But Ayoade has a lightness of touch, a sufficiency of humour and a modicum of restraint (i.e. it is not too long) to render this dystopian vision into an entertaining, even if spine-chilling, film noir.