The train carriage is bleak, functional, barren of ornamentation and other life, yet still Simon James gives up his seat when asked by the stranger who appears out of nowhere, conditioned to be subservient and obedient, to not challenge. What he does not realise is that the stranger is his double, a conniving and opportunistic parasite who will inveigle his way into his life, his home, his workplace, claiming credit for his work, displacing him and emasculating him as all around are oblivious to his resemblance to the man who calls himself James Simon.
Based on an 1846 novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the deeply Russian tale of the mental disintegration of government clerk Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin has been given a bleak British cynicism which recalls Terry Gilliam‘s Brazil, a frustration at events the characters are too polite to question, dealing with a too literal bureaucracy concerned with the phrasing of a sentence rather than the content. The ubiquity of the office cubicles celebrated in a framed picture on the wall, colour existing nowhere but in motivational corporate films, like Thatcher’s Britain, the squat portable television sat in the grimy bedsit seems to promise a better life behind the cathode ray tube for everyone but the viewer.
Where Kafka mutated a man into a bug, this is reminiscent of Richard Matheson’s early Star Trek story The Enemy Within, Kirk split into two personas making it apparent that it is the base aspects of the “evil” side which make him a strong captain, with James swiftly rising within the company and becoming popular with fellow workers while Simon fades. Directed by Richard Ayoade from a script co-written with Avi Korine, it is the blackest of comedies, with Zombieland’s Jesse Eisenberg, soon to be Lex Luthor, in double duty as both Simon and his doppelganger James, a reverse of his performance in The Social Network opposite Armie Hammer as both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.
Initially charming towards Simon, James is assertive and assured, always in control of the situation; where they both put there feet on the seat on the train home, it is Simon who takes his shoes off, James offering advice to draw his quarry closer to him: “Never ride on a motorcycle with another man. Bomb throwings, drive by shootings and purse snatchings are fine, anything else is gay.”
Opposite the Eisenbergs is Mia Wasikowska as Hannah, the object of Simon’s desire whom he watches as he tries to reassemble the fragments of her life, but he is tricked into making a move on her by James in order that he can step in and sabotage the effort and then claim her himself.
Unlike Saoirse Ronan, whose opportunities have not allowed her the to fulfil the talent displayed in Hanna, her recent supporting role in The Grand Budapest Hotel standing out against the generic teen angst of The Host, Wasikowska has through Jane Eyre, Stoker and Only Lovers Left Alive shown herself to be one of the most challenging and uncompromising performers of her generation. Turning her hand to different genres as easily as she changes her wardrobe, lit here by the glow of the photocopier, she is a luminous angel out of Lynchian dreams.
The spectre of Fire Walk With Me is also present in the diner scene, the superbly caustic waitress dismissing Simon but responding to James’ authority, Simon dazzled by James’ refusal to observe the social convention of the other characters as displayed at the mandatory company function, an obscene parade of early sixties stuffiness before the rock and roll revolution swept it aside, formal dress, finger sandwiches and regulation steps on the dance floor.
A splendid character actor with an unmistakable voice perhaps best known as Vizzini in The Princess Bride and Mr Hall in Clueless, though recognisable even under the heavy makeup of Grand Nagus Zek on Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Wallace Shawn is Simon’s increasingly impatient supervisor Mr Papadopoulos who has entrusted him with the training of his acerbic daughter Melanie, profoundly disinterested in anything Simon has to impart: “If I were forced to find out how depressing and demeaning whatever it is you do here I might be forced to feel sorry for you.”
A surrealist nightmare caught in a world trapped in time with only the joyful and sublime soundtrack to lift the film, the stylings are of post-war austerity, tower blocks and darkened subterranean corridors, Simon’s mother held in a sanatorium where both inmates and nurses prepare themselves in a concealed escalation of arms. The pervasive dislocation and unease of the film will not be to the tastes of all, but Ayoade’s singular vision confirms his position as a subversive talent to be mindful of.