Beware arty movies about timid young men: They can be a real drag.
Director Richard Ayoade‘s dank adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevksy’s novella “The Double” is overwrought and bleak, a tough sit likely to appeal only to a narrow segment of the arthouse audience. Even distributor Magnolia describes it as a film that resists obvious commercialism.
The movie, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year, is highly stylized and hallucinatory, set sometime in the not-so-distant past.
Like stylish predecessors Darren Aronofsky‘s “Pi” and David Fincher‘s “Fight Club,” “The Double” centers on an awkward young man waging psychological battle with himself. And it’s just as self-consciously arty.
Jesse Eisenberg stars in dual roles as a shy guy (Simon James) and his confident doppelgänger (James Simon). Simon’s ill-fitting suit hangs on him like a two-piece metaphor: This is a guy who is highly uncomfortable in his own skin.
Of course he has an unrequited crush on an ethereal co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). That he owns a telescope for spying on neighbors is no big shocker, any more than the soul-crushing bureaucratic job or troubled relationship with his mother.
Things take a real turn for the Kafkaesque for poor Simon when the security guard at his office doesn’t recognize him after years of service; the dreamlike feel grows even more pronounced with the appearance of James.
Confident where Simon is timid, James even wears the suit better. He immediately becomes a hit with Simon’s boss and starts wooing Hannah while passing off Simon’s work as his own.
Eisenberg does a fine job distinguishing between the two characters, making each performance distinct: He effectively evokes Simon’s horror and bewilderment at his callous twin’s behavior. But what he doesn’t do is make us care about Simon or his plight.
Wasikowska fares slightly better as the appropriately dreamy Hannah, but her character remains an enigma; supporting characters Wallace Shawn and Cathy Moriarty can’t rescue this lurid drama either.
“The Double,” adapted by Ayoade and Harmony Korine‘s brother Avi, also plays to broader fears of introverts who wonder about their place in the world. Yet without a character to really care about, the movie just comes off as fraught and over-stylized.
Beleaguered Simon is treated like he’s the unbalanced one, and he protests, but by the end his perspective is in question; at that point, many viewers simply won’t care. There are glimmers of interesting filmmaking by Ayoade, who last directed “Submarine,” but no true narrative soul or particular insight about the post-industrial world in “The Double.”
For potential viewers, the bigger question is how much tolerance they have for dramas like this.