Much has been made of the industrial-dystopian set design and lightly surrealistic style of Richard Ayoade’s The Double and its similarity to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. In fact, the story — adapted from Dostoyevsky’s novel — has a lot more similarity in tone to Kafka’s The Trial, itself adapted in 1962 by no less than Orson Welles. But while both protagonists find themselves crushed by an opaque, impersonal bureaucracy, the focus in The Double is on a man’s place and role within that same bureaucracy.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a mid-level bureaucrat in some unnamed, sunless, brutalist city. His identity card goes unrecognized at the office, forcing him to sign in as a visitor every day. His dutiful work goes largely unnoticed by his boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), who barely recognizes him after seven years on the job. In Dostoyevsky’s imperial Russia, a civil servant should move up a grade after that long no matter his performance, so the fact that Simon hasn’t is just further evidence of how he slips through the cracks in an uncaring system.
The one light in Simon’s life is Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the young woman in the copying department who, naturally, Simon is too timid to even approach. He does at least take some halting steps towards self-assertion in order to see her at a social event, but is quickly thrown out over the bureaucracy’s usual failure to recognize him.
Things do change, though. One day, a new employee arrives: James Simon (Eisenberg again). James is everything Simon is not. He boldly asserts himself, quickly earning the esteem of Mr. Papadopoulos and everyone else in the office. James demands and receives extraordinary and swift service at the diner where Simon has trouble getting slowly even what the menu offers, if at all. Where Simon is an industrious worker, even going out of his way to prepare reports on improving efficiency, James slacks off on his actual duties, getting Simon to take his placement test and stealing the reports to present as his own. James even seduces the young Melanie Papadopoulos, whose internship Simon was placed in charge of. But when James turns his attentions to Hannah, Simon decides that things have gone far enough.
The script, by Ayoade and Avi Korine, takes few pains to explain itself, much like Dostoyevsky’s own work. It’s never quite clear what exactly is going on. How exactly is James related to Simon? Are they truly separate? but injuries to the one seem to affect the other. Is James an insane Simon’s alter ego, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club? but people seem to seem them as distinct, even failing to recognize their identical appearances. Is something more mysterious going on? the film doesn’t dig into that at all. People who enjoy these sorts of vague, elliptical mysteries in literature will enjoy it here, but others are likely to find it discouraging and needlessly oblique.
The style, though, is deliciously dark and industrial. Ayoade’s characters speak with an outdated, overly wordy formalism, and yet deliver their lines at a rapid clip. Everything feels the wrong size, as if the world is dictated by the needs of the system rather than the people that live in it. And it’s all in constant, disorienting motion. Despite being written over 150 years ago, Distoyevsky’s novella still manages to speak to our current condition, as Ayoade and Korine have managed to show in their version.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.