I confess I’m not as much of a fan of The IT Crowd, the show for which this week’s movie recommendation director is most widely known. In fact, before Richard Ayoade became cult-pop’s darling by acting in front of the camera, he was busy crafting a name for himself directing movie shorts and music videos from behind the camera. His second feature length film, The Double (2013), is an impressive effort that’s worth seeing if you can still catch it in the cinemas.

Simon James, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is a faceless bureaucrat working in a non-descript government agency. His work is soul-destroying, but it is only marginally less so than the rest of his dreary life, so he takes some measure of pride in doing… well, no-one really knows what (including Simon). The mediocrity of his world flattens even extraordinary events — like suicides committed by neighbors — into the same pathetic banality as his non-existent prospects for career advancement. He is Winston Smith, but without the imagination or sense of urgency.

The only solace in Simon’s sad, mundane little life is the brief enjoyment of interactions with the profoundly complex Hannah (played by Mia Wasikowska), the cute neighbor who happens to work in the print room a few floors below his office. She seems to harbor little interest in getting to know Simon on a more intimate level, and people begin to suspect that Simon, too, is bound for suicide some time soon.

…That is, until the new employee James Simon (also played by Eisenberg) shows up to start work at Simon James’ office. The newcomer James is cool, suave, confident, and everything that Simon isn’t. Except that no-one seems to notice that, personalities notwithstanding, the two are indistinguishable from one another. James decides to teach Simon how to court Hannah in exchange for Simon’s assistance with the drudgery of James’ work obligations. The routines and insecurities of Simon’s life begin to unravel throughout the rest of the film, with unexpected consequences.

The film is based on a Dostoyevsky story of the same name. I’m afraid my not having read the original work means that I can’t pass comment on the fidelity of the film to the novel. But while the general storyline is perfectly fine, I enjoyed the film more for Ayoade’s directorial flair and Eisenberg’s versatility than for its plot. Eisenberg does such a wonderful job capturing the two starkly different characters that there’s never any confusion – a rare reprieve, given the rest of the film – as to whether you’re watching Simon or James in any given scene. James’ efforts to make Simon more interesting are at different times crude, tender, hilarious, or demeaning. It’s all well wrought.

Ayoade’s use of color is just magnificent. Sure, the dreariness of Simon’s life is unoriginally captured by blue and grey hues, but there’s really a lot more going on as well. Take note of the ways the palette changes to oranges and reds, or to greens and yellows, or to pinks and browns in really creative and suggestive ways. Sometimes the colors match the mood; other times they do a lot of the work of Simon’s confused cognitive dissonance. Really, it’s pretty great.

The film’s also a visual treat thanks to the detail Ayoade puts into creating the world Simon occupies. Watching the film feels like walking through an installation at a quirky art exhibit. Every scene is filled with anachronisms: the workers at the office use cranks and levers to operate machinery, but the photocopier looks like it’s straight out of a space-age sci-fi. The costumes look like they’re pulled from a Raymond Chandler film noir, but the office party function looks like a twee Disney excursion. There are plenty of other examples, but instead I’ll let you find out for yourself.

The film suffers from a few too many lulls in pace and incongruous characters – beyond reminding us that Simon is pathetic, the scenes with his mother are a dead-end, for example. This is all the more troubling given that it clocks in at a brief 93 minutes, but The Double is complex, visually intriguing, funny, and well worth your time.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.