maxresdefault

Simon James. James Simon. Jesse Eisenberg and Jesse Eisenberg. Imagine meeting someone who looks exactly like you, but who possesses in every respect an opposite personality. That’s the central conceit of The Double, a dark, funny, and darkly funny piece of work. Somehow, doppelgängers have become a recurring element of movies released this year. Of all the 2014 films of this ilk, The Double is unquestionably the best.

Simon James lives in a city that appears to exist in perpetual night, working a terrible job in a soulless monolith of a corporation. He can’t stand up for himself, not even to keep his seat on the train. He has no friends. He pines silently for Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the girl who lives in the apartment directly opposite his across the way. And then he meets James Simon, who is everything he is not. James is assertive where Simon is meek, fearless where Simon will cow, the extrovert to Simon’s introvert. At first, it appears that James might be able to help Simon, as he coaches him in approaching girls and the like. But it quickly becomes apparent that James is actively seeking to replace Simon, and he might just be able to do it.

The Double is a very strange film, in the greatest way that films can be strange. The movie takes Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story of the same title and brings it to the screen with a heavy dose of Terry Gilliam sensibility. It would not seem out of place at all for Simon to run into the protagonist of Gilliam’s dystopian masterpiece Brazil. Both films feature oppressive architecture, a sublime balance of light and shadow in the visuals, and themes of love as the path to beating Big Brother. It revels in absurdity, as characters frequently collide with the rigid strictures of bureaucracy and procedure. It makes for scenes that are terrifically funny, chillingly sinister, or both.

At the center of this is Eisenberg’s dual performance. The ingenious core to Simon/James is that there’s more alike in their mannerisms than unalike. Eisenberg is playing both of the personas he’s chiefly known for. Simon is the subdued indie Eisenberg of The Squid and the Whale. James is the cocky asshole Eisenberg of The Social Network or Now You See Me. They carry themselves in similar ways, they sound the same, and either can pass for the other easily. The lines are blurred, and the fact that they appear to share whatever impacts one of them physically (such as injuries) suggests that they might not be doubles but really one man who’s always split by a mirror. The reflection is walking alongside him, and it can talk and act on its own.

Richard Ayoade, known as a comedic actor in the UK before his turn to directing, has established himself as a distinct voice with just two films under his belt. In reteaming with Erik Wilson, his cinematographer on his debut feature Submarine, he crafts an entire world on a not-too-considerable budget. It’s a world that looks underground even though some of it must take place outside. It’s beautifully claustrophobic, and makes a yellow wash look good in a way Enemy could never hope to.

The Double isn’t perfect. For one thing, it’s yet another movie that seems to find stalkerish behavior endearing (Simon is constantly watching Hannah through a telescope. Which pales next to how he scrounges her torn-up artwork from her trash and reassembles it). But it’s a terrific mix of older influences in the service of producing something that feels new. It’s funny, eerie, and memorable, and you get to see Jesse Eisenberg beat himself up. What’s not to recommend?