Richard Ayoade’s film noir-infused take on Dostoyevsky’s “The Double” is successful in enough of its individual parts that it proves almost doubly disappointing in its missteps, as if a gentle, sublime spell had been abruptly broken. Echoing the dystopias of “Brazil” and “Dark City” in its vision of a society shrouded by darkness, it’s a moody, sometimes thrilling tale of the struggle for humanity amid bureaucratic rule, and one aided immeasurably by the always-excellent Jesse Eisenburg. Unfortunately, despite its pleasures, the film proves ultimately little more than an echo, forgoing a thorough exploration of its themes for a more literal approach that treads close to lip service.
Eisenberg plays Simon James, a loyal, dedicated employee to an unnamed company, and whose overlooked efforts are suddenly usurped by his doppelganger, James Simon, who quickly ascends the corporate ladder, all the while cutting in on Simon’s long-gestating romantic interest. Eisenberg expertly captures both Simon’s nebbish reluctance and James’ arrogant swagger, and the psychological friction between them helps carry the film over its rougher patches.
“The Double” uses its modest budget to craft an otherworld that seems to be an extension of its antagonist’s oppressed psyche, with minimal details in a largely anonymous landscape of apartments and office buildings. Cinematographer Erik Wilson uses a palate of contrasting darkness and neon/fluorescent light sources, often favoring off-kilter compositions that strike a note of unsettling discord. Such as it is, the film has no shortage of atmosphere, and the decision to cast Wallace Shawn as Simon’s shrill supervisor is a small stroke of genius. It’s a pity, then, that it never manages to utilize these assets to greater thematic depth. By failing to establish any sense of the humanity Simon yearns for, its query into human nature amounts to little more than intoxicating window dressing.
“The Double” is available on DVD/Blu-ray on Aug. 26.
Robert Humanick is a contributing writer for slantmagazine.com
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