Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Richard Ayoade
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska
Running time: 93 minutes
Covering film festivals, especially one as humongous as the Toronto International Film Festival, can be overwhelming. That's not a complaint—there are just so many movies to see in what ends up being so little time. Every screening choice is precious. Every 30- to 40-minute session spent waiting on a line full of equally tired and antsy press members is less relaxing than the previous one. One of the things that unites all journalists attending a fest like TIFF, though, is the hope that they'll happen across a new film that's truly something special. You enter the festivities with a long list of must-sees, usually starring actors like George Clooney and Julia Roberts, and/or directed by filmmakers of Ron Howard's prestige caliber. But it's the smaller, less conspicuous festival selections that hold the biggest mysteries. Every so often, that element of surprise pays off in the best possible way: Your favorite film ends up being one that you never saw coming.
This year at TIFF, two films fit that bill so far: the Jake Gyllenhaal-led psychological rattler Enemy and now Richard Ayoade's delightfully oddball comedy The Double. A loose adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1846 novella, Ayoade's sophomore feature—the follow-up to his 2010 debut Submarine—is the best Terry Gilliam movie (i.e., Brazil, 12 Monkeys) the former Monty Python member never made. Funny, surreal, and impressively otherworldly without any sci-fi visual trickery, The Double places viewers into a heightened reality that can be described as an urbanized remodeling of the industrial setting seen in David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977), right down to the constant horns that blare from off-camera, as if Ayoade's film takes place in the town neighboring Eraserhead's opening scene's location.
The script, co-written by Ayoade and Avi Korine, is a shrewd comedy of epic fails experienced by Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg, his neurotic drollness utilized perfectly here). He's a cubicle dweller who wouldn't be out of place in Office Space; his co-workers rarely acknowledge his existence, beginning with the security guard who makes him sign in everyday and acts like he's never seen Simon before, even though Simon's worked there for five years. Par for the course, there's a pretty girl in his office (played by Mia Wasikowska) whom Simon adores but, though she's at least friendly, also can't be bothered by his awkward, nebbish attempts at conversation. His lack of identity takes a wild turn when new employee James Simon (also Eisenberg) shows up one day looking like Simon's clone, because, well, in a way, he is. Except, James is the polar opposite kind of person: He's confident, smooth-talking, and able to get his way. Plus, people acknowledge his presence. They also don't see the resemblance between Simon and James, yet another cruel slight against the former's meaningless life.
The British accents of Simon's colleagues imply that The Double takes place somewhere in England, but, really, who the hell knows? Though it resembles our reality, the world in which Simon aimlessly drifts around feels not of this universe, in the best ways. The streets are fog-cloaked and eerily vacant at all times. The commercials and shows Simon watches on his rinky-dink television have the aesthetics of brainwash propaganda made in the 1980s. The office building where he works is part factory and part prison-like nest of long-running bars and corridors. If not for the sharp, purposely mean-spirited comedy, The Double would qualify as an existentialist horror flick.
Ayoade—an actor turned director who's best known for the BBC sitcom The IT Crowd and, thankfully, less known for last year's Neighborhood Watch—is too comedically sound to let The Double descend into psychological gloom. Simon, in all of his passive-aggressive nothingness, can't be bothered with defending himself against one ridiculous social injustice after another, from his boss (Wallace Shawn) calling him Stanley to the cops investigating a suicide outside the apartment across from his putting him down as "Maybe" candidate for self-offing. Simon's whipping boy status is Ayoade's main target for jokes, and Eisenberg is game for every single one, finding the perfect middle ground between numbness and boiling-with-inner-rage for his reactions.
The poorer everyone in Simon's life treats him, and, simultaneously, the more popular the malevolent James becomes, the funnier and crazier The Double gets, eventually erupting in a darkly redemptive ending that'd make Dostoyevsky smile, if, you know, his corpse wasn't 132 years old. With this eye-opening and unique comedic triumph, Ayoade's put himself at the forefront of England's best young directors. Who knew TIFF 2013 would introduce us to Terry Gilliam's heir apparent for the "king of gonzo genre comedy" throne?