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The first line of dialogue in Richard Ayoade’s first film as a director, “Submarine,” is “Most people like to think of themselves as individuals.” The last line in his follow-up, “The Double,” is “I like to think I’m unique.” In both cases, these statements are left hanging as open questions.

“The Double,” a playful yet respectful adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name, offers both possibilities. We are not unique, just one of many worker drones trapped in the commute-cubicle-condo loop; we’re highly replaceable, specks in the urban swarm; and at the same time there is something essential about us that resists this anonymity and desperately asserts our individuality. It’s this tension between detachment and desire that drives the film.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a tongue-tied nobody whose presence at work barely registers with his boss (Wallace Shawn), while his crush on printing clerk Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) is so tepidly expressed it pings off unnoticed. Simon mopes and cowers — Eisenberg is an expert at flustering — loathing his timidity yet too shy to do anything about it. One day a new hire arrives at the office, James Simon (also Eisenberg), who could be his twin except he’s everything Simon is not: outgoing, aggressive, socially adapted and scheming.

The Double (Warau Bunshin)
Rating
Director Richard Ayoade
Run Time 93 minutes
Language English
Opens Nov. 8

Simon initially loses his cool, but accepts James’ offer to help him win over Hannah. However, his evil twin winds up getting the girl. Confounding Simon’s problem, nobody notices anything strange about the fact that there’s another version of him in the office. Is he, Simon, really that ignorable? Or — as the viewer may suspect — is James just in his head, a Jekyll & Hyde-like split of his own psyche? Dostoyevsky’s novella predates psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, but their idea of the “shadow self” looms large.

While Dostoyevsky can be a fairly difficult and exhausting read, Ayoade shows his comedian roots (as an actor in the British sitcom “The IT Crowd,” etc.) by bringing dark laughs and even slapstick to the material. The bureaucratic bustle of Simon’s workplace is straight out of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” while the waking-nightmare sense of dread and isolation (and constant background hum of industrial noise) nods at David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” Clear influences to be sure, but Ayoade has absorbed them well enough to create his own blend of romanticism amid a vaguely steampunk dystopia. The unexpectedly chirpy soundtrack of classic kayōkyoku — Showa Era (1926-89) pop — by Kyu Sakamoto and The Blue Comets stands in stark contrast to the suffocating Pyongyang-like ambience of the city.

Like “Memento” or “Lost Highway,” or all good puzzle films, “The Double” resists any single clear interpretation, and its tail-chasing ending will leave you wanting to immediately watch it again — three times and counting for me.

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