Imagine a different version of yourself that lacks all your insecurities, that always knows what to say, and that everyone instantly likes. People are drawn to him. Everything goes his way. For him, life is just easy. Would you want to be that person? Could you be that person, if you just got over the dumb excuses you make in your head and started putting in the effort?
The Double is a beautiful dark comedy that asks big questions like these. Simon means well and tries to be a good person. He goes through all the motions he thinks should get him ahead. He just lacks charisma. He’s crippled by introversion to the point of paralysis. Everyone else’s wishes, opinions, and bus-seat preferences always come first, simply because he lacks the courage to push back or make himself heard. Then James arrives — his exact double, but with all the brash confidence Simon lacks — and things get strange.
Which isn’t to say they don’t start out strange. So much about this movie works because it doesn’t feel like any other movie. The premise could have easily devolved into broad body-swap comedy (“But you… But he… You darn twins!”), but that’s not the aim. The Double is a lot closer to an uneasy out-of-body experience. There’s plenty to laugh at, but each comic moment has teeth as well. Visually, there’s a surreal quality that borders on sci-fi, putting this film not in the future (the technology feels more early-computer era), but not quite in any past we would recognize. It’s a slightly dystopian bureaucracy that’s just weird enough to magnify the sense of discomfort we feel by exaggerating Simon’s alienation. Taken together, the film feels more like a fable or short story. Though it’s based on a novella by Dostoevsky — which made total sense once the credits rolled, if you’ve read any of his work — the immediate comparison would be Curb Your Enthusiasm set in the world of Kafka’s The Trial.
For a second feature film by Richard Ayoade (from The IT Crowd, The Watch), it’s a bold and exciting show of promise with shades of early Coen Brothers and a literary touch. Jesse Eisenberg balances the stammering Simon and the energetic James with a nice contrast, especially playing off what we know of him from past work. And Mia Wasikowska brings a nice spin to what could have been another Manic Pixie Dream Girl role with her own problems and frustrations.
But stylistic choices aside, this is a comedy with an introspective twist, and a drama that finds humor in our petty battles with resentment. It plays with the notion of our better selves in a way that questions what we think we want. Maybe we wouldn’t like the person we’d be if everything came easily. Maybe our yearning for something real beyond the box we feel trapped in makes us romantic figures in our own minds, but in reality it cripples our ability to actually go out and seize it.
The Double doesn’t answer that question, but it asks it in the most engaging way. And sometimes all we need to see things differently is a good long look in the mirror.
The Double may be harder to track down, but worth seeking out at your local arthouse or On Demand service once it’s available May 9th. This review was based on a screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival.