I’m no literary critic (heck, I barely qualify as a film critic), but director Richard Ayoade’s new Dostoevsky adaptation The Double (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 16) reminded me of another mid-19th century tale of alienation and anomie, Herman Melville’s 1852 short story ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’.
I would prefer not to believe that Melville was influenced by Dostoevsky, but had ‘The Double’ (published in 1846) been translated into English by the time Melville wrote ‘Bartleby’? Alternatively, did Melville read Russian, or were both writers independently reflecting the cultural zeitgeist of their time? I don’t know (and neither, it seems, does the Internet), but there are two things of which I’m certain: The Double will appear near the top of my 2014 favorites list, and I won’t be writing lit criticism for the London Review of Books any time soon.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) has spent the last seven years punching the clock at a data processing firm owned by The Colonel (Brit screen legend James Fox, best remembered for his turn opposite Mick Jagger in 1970’s Performance). Despite his tenure, however, Simon remains an invisible presence at work, unrecognized by the company security guard (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and unacknowledged by supervisor Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn, delightful as ever).
Enamored with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska, well on her way to becoming the 21st century Julie Christie), a colleague toiling in the company copy center, the socially awkward Simon spends his evenings observing her via telescope as she relaxes in her nearby apartment. It’s not quite as creepy as it sounds – think James Stewart, not Carl Boehm – and the two of them finally speak after a man jumps to his death from the ledge outside her window.
Presented with a once in a deathtime opportunity, Simon offers to be Hannah’s date at the annual office party. She accepts, but on the big night he’s given the heave-ho by his security guard nemesis – and on the following day there’s an even more unpleasant surprise awaiting him at work in the person of James, a new employee who’s also Simon’s spitting image.
Possessing all the social skills and confidence Simon lacks, James quickly becomes an office favorite and the man most likely to win Hannah’s hand. Forced into an unequal and unfair competition with his doppelgänger and accused by Papadopoulos of being “unnoticeable (and) a bit of a non-person”, Simon finds himself struggling to overcome some very heavy odds indeed.
I haven’t seen Ayaode’s well-received previous feature Submarine, but The Double suggests he’s a young filmmaker of considerable promise. Eschewing the hyperrealism of most ‘serious’ contemporary cinema, Ayaode sets his story in an off-kilter alternate universe reflecting the influence of Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Aki Kaurismaki, David Lynch, and Orson Welles’ The Trial.
Shot in rust brown hues by cinematographer Erik Wilson and featuring magnificent production design from David Crank (previously employed by Spielberg, Malick and P. T. Anderson), The Double looks terrific. An existentialist nightmare which would have been a hit on the midnight movie circuit thirty years ago, there should still be an audience for it among ennui stricken under-30s and fans of depressing 19th century fiction.
Footnote: yes, that really is Dinosaur Jr. main-man J. Mascis as the company janitor.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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