Monday, May 05, 2014

The Double: One Jesse Eisenberg Too Many

It was Nabokov’s favorite Dostoevsky work, but he might not have recognized this vaguely British, boldly dystopian adaptation. Simon James is about to meet a new co-worker with a familiar face, who will turn his drab little life upside down in Richard Ayoade’s The Double (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

James is a mousy Winston Smith toiling away in a soul-deadeningly bureaucratic data processing firm. He works like a mule producing mountains of reports, but the boss, Mr. Papadopoulos constantly belittles him, never even properly remembering his name. Simon James initially befriends James Simon, his relentlessly confident doppelganger, even completing his paper-pushing assignments in exchange for advice on wooing Hannah, a pale young woman in the copy department. Even though she lives across the courtyard from his Soviet-style apartment building, she has only the barest awareness of James’ existence.

Naturally, Simon soon starts pursuing him for his own satisfaction, while insidiously undermining James’ already tenuous position with the company. As the put upon James’ Orwellian world becomes increasingly Kafkaesque, he starts to act out of desperation.

For those who were less than charmed by Submarine, Ayoade’s sad-eyed moppet coming-of-age tale, The Double will come as a pleasant shock. Even though it often feels like the unauthorized sequel to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, there is a real vision thing going on here. Specifically, the strategy of recasting Dostoevsky in a dystopian setting is a brilliant way to still connect to the original story’s Russian-ness, while striving for universality. After all, novels like 1984 and We were conceived as Stalinist critiques, which suddenly seems highly relevant again given Putin’s re-commencement of Russian May Day parades.

Similarly, it is nice to see Jesse Eisenberg step outside his sheepish hipster comfort zone to create two very distinctively pathological personas as Simon and James (or vice versa). His two-handed scenes played single-handedly crackle with tension and bite. Mia Wasikowska’s Hannah is rather drearily demure, but at least she is a convincing blank slate for James to project his yearnings upon. In contrast, Wallace Shawn and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith ham it up something fierce as the company president and security guard, but the effect is much more unsettling than funny-ha-ha.

Ayoade and co-adapter Avi Korine have created a rigorously consistent, dark, and dank vision of an analog future that almost was and maybe will be again. Production designer David Crank and his team did incredible work making it all feel (uncomfortably) lived in. It is an admirably disciplined film that never trafficks in empty surrealism merely to score points with cult movie fanatics. Recommended for devotees of literate urban fantasy, The Double opens this Friday (5/9) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.