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Review: ‘The Double’ Serves Up Delectable Dark Comedy

Richard Ayoade Challenges Expectations With His Second Feature Film

Above: Jesse Eisenberg has trouble with a doppelganger in "The Double."

Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky is not often adapted to the big screen, perhaps because his themes often turn dark. But His novella “The Double” (opening May 16 at Landmark’s Ken Cinema) proves perfect material for the multi-talented Richard Ayoade.

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Director Richard Ayoade.

Companion Viewing

"Brazil" (1985)

"Dislocation" (CHina, 1986)

"Garth Marenghi's Darkplace" (BBC Series, 2004)

"Submarine" (2010)

You might not know Richard Ayoade’s name but you would probably recognize him as Maurice Moss — with a spectacularly asymmetrical hairdo and perpetually surprised expression — from the BritCom “The IT Crowd.” That show was brilliant but it fit nicely into the sitcom mold American audiences were accustomed to. But if you go back a little earlier in Ayoade’s career you’ll see that Ayoade is not someone to remain stuck in any mold.

My introduction to Ayoade came from my friends in Wales who sent me a DVD of a 2004 horror spoof comedy series called “Garth Marenghi's Darkplace.” Ayoade directed and also appeared as one of the characters. The show was hilarious, outrageous, bizarre and a little bit dark. Having seen that makes “The Double” seem a logical progression.

Dostoevsky’s “The Double” is a perverse little tale about a solitary, anxious man whose life is thrown into turmoil when he faces an over-confident doppelganger. Simon James (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is a timid clerk working in an grim government organization. His situation reminds us of characters in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” and Herman Melville’s “Bartelby.” His boss (Wallace Shawn) ignores him and colleagues mock him and he gets no love from his mother. To make matters worse, he has a crush on the copy girl Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who may not even know he exists. Feeling severely undervalued, Simon can’t imagine his life getting any worse but of course it does with the arrival of James Simon (also played by Eisenberg), a new co-worker. James and Simon are mirror images in terms of physical appearances but polar opposites in terms of personalities. And James seems to have decided — much to Simon’s horror — to take over Simon’s life.

Richard Ayoade's first feature film, “Submarine,” was a thoroughly charming coming-of-age film. This time out Ayoade pushes his talent in a different direction and proves equally skilled. He serves up a darkly comic adaptation of Dostoevsky’s story with a stellar ensemble cast that includes Eisenberg, Shawn, Wasikowska, Noah Taylor and Cathy Moriarty.

From the very first frame Ayoade announces his control of the film. The production design clearly establishes an ominous mood and the visuals are crisp and stunning. The sound work — from flickering blubs to mundane office sounds — often offers perfect punctuation to scenes, eliciting as much laughter as lines of dialogue. This is by no means a conventional comedy and the laughs all come at a certain painful cost but Ayoade is so assured in his direction that everything flows smoothly and we allow ourselves to be immersed in this strange, dark world.

“The Double” (rated R for language) is far from conventional and although dark in tone it feels like a breath of fresh air in terms of its willingness to take risks. Ayoade reaffirms yet again that he is a talent to watch. If you want something to surprise and dazzle you but also challenge your expectations, then this is most definitely the film to seek out.

Watch the trailer here.

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