Watching a lot of movies is not a prerequisite for being a good director. In unusual instances, it can even be an impediment. Richard Ayoade is a case in point. As a comic performer, this actor-turned-film-maker has a distinctive style: he mixed the naive and the knowing to sophisticated effect in The IT Crowd, in which he played Moss, king of the nerds, stiff and straight as an ironing board, with a lopsided wedge of haywire hair.
Two films into his directing career, he has yet to exhibit a comparably original voice. Both the coming-of-age comedy Submarine (2010) and its superficially darker follow-up, a loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novella The Double, suffer from a severe case of homage overload. While I am overjoyed for Ayoade that he has seen such films as Brazil, Eraserhead, The Tenant and the collected works of Aki Kaurismäki, a 90-minute tour of his DVD collection is no substitute for a film. Casting is one area where The Double is strong. As Simon, the office drone so ineffectual that automatic doors fail to register his presence, Jesse Eisenberg is ideal. He’s so pale that a pint of milk would look like Tizer alongside him, so jittery that he surely stammers even in his thoughts. Simon is already a nervous wreck before witnessing a man in the opposite building jump to his death. There is also his agony at lusting after a demure, icicle-like colleague (Mia Wasikowska) to little noticeable effect and discovering that she may have played some part in the leaper’s demise. (It turns out that she told him, “Stop fucking following me!” the day before his death. “Do you think there’s some connection?” she asks innocently.)
Then Simon is spooked to find that his exact double, James, has begun working in the office. Even worse, James starts passing off Simon’s achievements as his own and currying favour with the boss (Wallace Shawn). James is also played by Eisenberg, though a supreme gag here would have been to cast the similarly pallid and angular Michael Cera; after all, both actors have remarked publicly that they are forever being mistaken for one another. Cera’s ongoing campaign to muss up his geeky persona began a few years ago with Youth in Revolt (2009), in which he played both a nerd and his suave alter ego: exactly what Eisenberg is called on to do here. Then again, Youth in Revolt was breezy fun, whereas The Double has its sights set stubbornly on being art. If there is a faster route for a director to end up with egg on his face, it has escaped me temporarily.
The movie is glazed with a feeble sense of dread, nowhere more so than in the area of production design, which has a retro-futuristic aesthetic: sickly green lighting, exposed ducts and pipes, technology with an antiquated spin (such as the photocopier equipped with clunky dials). Framed pictures of the omniscient Colonel (James Fox) recall Big Brother from Nineteen Eighty-Four but even in its homages the movie is derivative – Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian fantasy Brazil went by the working title of 1984½. The problem, as with everything in The Double, is not that the influences are transparent but that they are all the film has. Those of a forgiving spirit might take this for an in-joke, as if Ayoade were making the movie itself into a double, a 24-frames-per-second facsimile.
Even generous viewers might wonder at the film’s preference for effect over feeling, affectation over depth. Ayoade can shoot a garishly coloured room flickering under a broken strip-light as well as the next David Lynch fan but where is the palpable menace required in any cinematic nightmare? We never discover why it is such a bad deal for Simon to meet his doppelgänger; the film wouldn’t be noticeably different if the interloper were not James but, say, any hunk with designs on Simon’s girl. Ayoade is not slow to pile on the zaniness (a suicide squad assesses Simon as a “maybe” and there are visits to a nursing home where the residents carry weapons). He also recruits his comedy chums (Chris Morris, Chris O’Dowd) for unremarkable cameos. Taking this story of the uncanny and stripping it of any eeriness must count as his most striking achievement, as well as his most perverse.