Richard Ayoade's The Double is the kind of sophomore effort you make when you're still trying to work out your own original ideas and approaches to filmmaking. He pulls from a litany of inspirations, including Five Easy Pieces, The Apartment, Rear Window, Cyrano de Bergerac and, most wholesale, Brazil. In fact, Ayoade draws so heavily from the well of dystopic fiction that it edges on embarrassing. But his choice to do so in adapting the novella of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky is quite inspired, which makes the film worth seeing.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg, in self-effacing mode) is a clerical flunky in the sort of ultra-dreary office environment that exists in this extreme form only in the movies. He looks around him and sees his future: tired, depressing old men who have been doing the same job for forty years and will probably fade into the wallpaper someday. His one concession to happiness is his brief interactions with a woman who works in the copy room, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), whose window he spies through from across the street at night. Simon is not prurient in his pursuit of Hannah, but rather curious about how another human being operates in the world, considering how lonely he is.
His life of extreme repetition and appeasing his impossible-to-please boss (Wallace Shawn) is thrown into disarray with the arrival of a new co-worker, James Simon (also Eisenberg, going full Zuckerberg). James is outgoing, charismatic and, most importantly, alluring to Hannah in a way that Simon, ever the wilting flower, can never hope to be. They initially strike up a friendship, with James the Vince Vaughn to Simon's Jon Favreau. But, as you might expect, things go south when James takes advantage of how much of a pushover Simon is, and begins to leech away the few positive things left in his existence.
I'll give it to Ayoade: he lacks nothing for style. Every camera movement and frame is exactly in its right place, and they all feel deliberate. Ayoade also manages to strike a balance in tone between despair and abyssal, black comedy. The film is short, at just over ninety minutes, and the editing is tight and claustrophobic. Eisenberg, who demonstrated his motor-mouth abilities in The Social Network, keeps scenes moving at the clip they do almost as much as editors Chris Dickens and Nick Fenton. Director of photography Erik Fenton drenches the cast in high-contrast lighting and deep shadows, complementing the highly attenuated production design by David Crank, who never met a shade of beige he didn't love. Wasikowska also succeeds at convincing us of being simultaneously seductively mysterious and also pure in a way that we want her to be protected from her soul-sucking environment.
The Double has a lot to love about it, but that's thing: I don't feel much love towards it. The story is so derivative and Ayoade's telling of it moves in such a predictable manner that it's hard to feel engaged with it emotionally, beyond the film's admittedly excellent technical craft. He wields symbolism and foreshadowing so heavily that it nearly suffocates the story. I'd like to have seen The Double go to truly dark and desperate places, but it instead ends in a way that feels compromised and half-baked. Reading a synopsis of Dostoevsky's book makes me wish that Ayoade had the confidence to dig as deeply as his source material did.