There is something inherently cinematic about a lot of the best recent “alternative” British comedy, and yet none of the most likely suspects (Lee, Munnery) have branched off into directing feature films. One exception has been the brilliant Chris Morris, whom I interviewed when he was in the U.S. promoting his wonderfully dark comedy Four Lions.
Only one other British comedian has taken the plunge so far. In 2010, Richard Ayoade, a very celebrated (and very busy) comic actor and writer, directed and scripted the charming coming-of-age picture Submarine. Now he's returned with a nightmare comedy called The Double, based on Dostoyevsky's short story of the same name.
The film is a highly atmospheric piece, set in a near-future bureaucratic dystopia. Our anti-hero Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is startled when his doppelganger (also Eisenberg) appears at his workplace and turns out to be a far more successful version of him. The double becomes his mentor and attempts to teach him how to con the people around him – bosses, coworkers, women – but it's evident from the start that there can only be one Simon in this creepy corporate universe.
Ayoade (right) demonstrated his cinephilia in Submarine, with onscreen references to Dreyer, Melville, and Roeg (and one rather obvious Godardian touch). Here the world he creates is clearly inspired by David Lynch (Eraserhead, Inland Empire), Gilliam (Brazil), Jeunet and Caro (Delicatessen), and Welles (The Trial).
The moody aspect of the film comes from the fact that Ayoade and coscripter Avi Korine (yes, he's Harmony's brother) wallpaper the Dostoyevsky scenario with Kafka-esque paranoia. Simon is a lonely, perpetually ill-at-ease individual who isn't so much an everyman as the guy we all don't wish to be. His double is impetuous, charming, and most decidedly criminal – clearly solid corporate material.
The influence of Brazil is seen most clearly in the fact that the dystopia Simon lives in is populated by a curious mixture of Brits and Americans. The company he works for is headed by “the Colonel,” a prim and proper Englishman, played by Ayoade's real-life father-in-law James Fox (The Servant, Performance). His immediate supervisor is an eager toady, played by the irrepressible Wallace Shawn.
Eisenberg excels in the dual lead roles, doing what amounts to an impression of Crispin Glover. Playing the girl of his dreams, Mia Wasikowska is the only performer whose accent occasionally “slips” from British to American and back (in real life, she's an Aussie). Making welcome cameos are Ayoade's comedy colleagues Chris Morris (who directed him in Nathan Barley), Chris O'Dowd (his costar from The IT Crowd), and Tim Key.
The Double may indeed be too bleak for multiplex viewers, but it is certain to acquire a cult as years go by. It's an odd, imaginative little picture that has evocative visuals and a moodiness that remains with viewers long after they have left the theater.
The film is currently in theatrical release, but can also be seen via Video on Demand on iTunes.
One of Ayoade's finest comic creations, the utterly untalented Dean Lerner, porn and horror novel publisher turned actor, from Garth Merenghi's Darkplace (2004):
Ayoade directed the superb rock-opera satire ADBC: A Rock Opera (2004). He cowrote the piece with Matt Berry and costarred with Berry, the Mighty Boosh's Julian Barratt, and Julia Davis (Nighty Night):
Ayoade's best-known sitcom character, “Moss” from The IT Crowd: