In 2014, we have already seen three doppelganger movies.
There was the beautiful, paranoiac Enemy, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal playing two guys who may or may not be the same man. Then there was Ed Harris playing the exact double of somebody's dead husband in the dreary The Face of Love. Finally, there was Kermit the Frog contending with an evil physical twin in Muppets Most Wanted.
With the arrival of director Richard Ayoade's sinisterly funny The Double, based on the 1846 novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, we have a fourth movie about a physical twin wreaking havoc on somebody's life. With the exception of the stupid Ed Harris movie, this has been a pretty damn good year for the doppelganger.
Jesse Eisenberg, in a performance that actually gets me excited about his casting as Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman, plays Simon James, a shy, meek, nondescript man. He's so transparent, the security guard where he works demands to see his identification card every day because he can't remember him. Simon has worked at the company for seven years.
As for where Simon works, it's a little hard to describe. Think Terry Gilliam's odd future world in Brazil meeting David Lynch's bizarro Eraserhead, and then throw in some of the soul-sucking corridors and worn wallpaper from the Coen brothers' Barton Fink. Simon has a crush on Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) who works in the copy room, or at least I think it's a copy room. I'm still not quite sure what her occupation is supposed to be.
Simon is also a bit of a voyeur (in yet another nod to another movie, this one being Rear Window). He spies on Hannah via his telescope (she is also his neighbor in an apartment building one block over) and goes Dumpster diving for her discarded artwork. At one point, J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., playing a nosy janitor, admonishes Simon for scavenging. Yes, this is a movie that features the dude from Dinosaur Jr. lurking about.
Shortly after Simon witnesses a man leaping to his death near Hannah's apartment, and is then humiliated at a company function, a new employee shows up at work. He is James Simon, an exact physical twin of Simon. James is everything Simon wants to be: confident, funny, blunt and devious. James quickly impresses their boss (Wallace Shawn, always fun to have around) and, of course, Hannah, who is superintrigued by the new guy.
Simon and James start as friends, with James telling him to move up the ladder with Hannah and face life with more bravado. Things go downhill quickly when James starts taking credit for Simon's work and, of course, moves in on Hannah.
Ayoade drops plenty of hints as to the origins of Simon, and everything leads up to an ambiguous and genuinely strange ending that had me drawing my own conclusion, a conclusion I won't share. Watch the movie and make your own call.
Eisenberg is given the task of creating two genuinely different personalities who look exactly alike, even down to their bland choice of tan clothing. He isn't given the benefit of a pencil mustache or a top hat for the evil twin. He accomplishes the feat mainly in the cadence of his voice. James rolls off sentences with no hesitation, while Simon is prone to stammering.
Odd little touches include Simon's favorite TV show, a low-tech science fiction show that makes Dr. Who look like a big-budget extravaganza. In another ode to David Lynch, a strange band of older gentlemen sing at the company ball, looking like something straight out of Twin Peaks. There's also the strange diner that Simon frequents, where his waitress (Cathy Moriarty) serves him what looks like window cleaner instead of the requested orange juice.
Wasikowska, who can be a rather drab actress, is good here, as she was in some of her better efforts, such as Stoker and The Kids are All Right. Noah Taylor contributes as a co-worker who sort of knows who Simon is, even if he sees him as somewhat of a nonperson. Sally Hawkins, who co-starred in Ayoade's first feature, Submarine (which also featured Taylor and many others in The Double's cast), has a small appearance in the film as well.
While Ayoade is making a name for himself as a subversive director, you might know him as the funny British guy in The Watch, that alien invasion movie with Ben Stiller that nobody but me seemed to like. He's mostly made his mark in TV, acting overseas.
The Double stands as proof that Ayoade is a formidable director who manages a distinct vision even when he's taking bits and pieces from other directors. He doesn't have a follow-up to this on his slate as of yet. I hope that changes soon.