Richard Ayoade’s quirky coming-of-ager “Submarine” provided little indication of the exceedingly strange places the multitalented British funnyman would go with his sophomore directing effort, a dark and heady dystopian-noir cocktail adapted from Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella, “The Double.” Heavily influenced in its visual and narrative particulars by Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” among other out-there cinematic touchstones, this tale of a nondescript young man who finds himself gradually eclipsed by his own doppelganger (an expert dual performance by Jesse Eisenberg) has style and energy to burn, even when its willfully hermetic, overdetermined vision begins to run out of steam. Likely to be embraced by Ayoade’s fans and adventurous arthouse-goers, it’s a left-field curio that unmistakably broadens the director’s range but seems unlikely to significantly expand his audience.
Eisenberg is ideally cast as Simon James, a socially awkward, deferential young man whose apparent lot in life is to seem unmemorable and insignificant to the point of invisibility. Everyone, including his mother (Phyllis Somerville), treats him with indifference if not outright contempt. Although Simon has toiled away for years at the same pointless office job, his scowling boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn, perfect), can still barely remember his name. The company security guard (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) forces him to produce identification every time he comes and goes, fixing him with a suspicious glare. And his lovely co-worker, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who lives in an apartment opposite his own, can scarcely be bothered to return his romantic interest.
The film’s paranoid conceit — Orwellian menace and bureaucratic tedium by way of Gogolesque absurdity — eventually materializes in the form of the titular double. Although the two men are identical in appearance, James Simon turns out to be everything Simon James isn’t. Brash, confident and popular, especially with the ladies, James is a new hire at Simon’s company and soon has the boss eating out of his hand, even though he knows nothing about what the company does (admittedly, neither do we, except that it has something to do with regression analysis). And so Simon, like the pushover he is, does all James’ work for him in exchange for a few measly crumbs of advice: “You have to go after what you want,” James tells him. Yet any sense of complicity or possibility of friendship swiftly fades as this decidedly evil twin manifests his true nature — which, of course, may just be an extension of Simon’s own.
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Relatively straightforward as that may sound, it scarcely captures the heightened expressionistic intensity with which “The Double” unfolds onscreen. The atmosphere is dank and claustrophobic, the action unfolding against what seems to be a permanent nightscape. David Crank’s stripped-down production design, more retro than futuristic, looks at once drab and ravishing as lensed by d.p. Erik Alexander, who accents every shabby interior with a vibrant burst of color. From start to finish, the loosely handheld camera seems to mirror Simon’s unsettled psyche, feverishly darting and cutting around the action, often operatically amped up by Andrew Hewitt’s thunderous orchestral score.
Ayoade has cited Orson Welles’ Kafka adaptation “The Trial” as a key influence, with its similarly labyrinthine sense of entrapment, along with “Alphaville,” “Eraserhead” and the dry Nordic comedies of Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismaki; the latter’s imprint is particularly apparent in “The Double’s” regular eruptions of deadpan humor and its rich, almost Sirkian color palette. And so long as there are cinematic references to be footnoted, it’s hard not to flash back to “Rear Window” when Simon uses a telescope to spy on Hannah in her apartment — at first with longing, then with frustration as he bears helpless witness to her trysts with James.
In short, Ayoade, clearly steeped in film history, has borrowed every trick and technique in the lexicon he can think of in order to lock the viewer inside the tortured miasma that is Simon’s headspace, a nightmarish and distorted world in which every slight and insult is magnified and multiplied ad infinitum. It’s a bleak, alienating vision by design, and the cruel sense of repetition that sets in feels entirely intentional, conveying again and again the weight of society bearing down relentlessly on one individual.
It’s a conceit that inevitably works better thematically than it does dramatically: Undeniably impressive as a visual-psychological construct, “The Double” is ultimately a rigid, one-joke movie that feels hard pressed to sustain any sort of momentum over the course of its 92-minute running time, even as it builds toward a potent climax that makes a rationally irrational sort of sense. Viewers inclined to simply marinate in the film’s visual-aural splendor may feel sufficiently invigorated by the ambition and panache Ayoade evinces here, and for all its frustrations, the film certainly leaves one eager to see what this unpredictable talent will tackle next.
In a film that affords few emotional dividends, it’s at least continually fascinating to watch Eisenberg act opposite himself in two neatly calibrated side-by-side performances; one senses, at almost just a glance, whether it’s Simon or James we’re looking at, and Eisenberg proves equally convincing in the roles of mild-mannered outcast and sinister aggressor. “Submarine” alums resurfacing here include Paige, Noah Taylor, Craig Roberts, Paddy Considine and Sally Hawkins, who has an amusing cameo as one of the bureaucratic functionaries giving Simon short shrift. Also making a brief but memorable appearance is Ayoade’s old “IT Crowd” co-star, Chris O’Dowd, as a doctor who treats Simon, and none too effectively.