November 23, 2014 -- A man struggles against a doppelgänger bent on taking over his life in this existential film based on a book written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Even though the story was published in 1846, it still works as a modern comedy about the uncomfortable fit that many people have with the absurdities of modern society.
Watching this film, it is easy to see why some people argue that Dostoyevsky is the father of existential literature, with stories like this and “Notes From Underground.” Simon's plight (played by Jesse Eisenberg of “Now You See Me”) seems to me remarkably similar to that of Josef's plight in Franz Kafka's “The Trial” (played by Anthony Perkins in Orson Welles' 1960 movie).
Simon is a mild-mannered office worker who has some good ideas about how to improve the company, but people pay no attention to him when he tries to be heard. He is interested in a pretty co-worker, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska of “Jane Eyre”) but she barely notices him. On an otherwise empty subway car a stranger comes up to Simon and says Simon is taking his seat. Simon meekly moves and lets the man take his seat.
A man comes to work at the same office named James. He looks identical to Simon, but his personality is the opposite of Simon's. James is forceful, talkative, brash and ambitious. While pretending to help Simon, he steals Simon's ideas and gets credit for them. Simon loses his job and finds himself being forced out of existence. James, on the other hand, is promoted and praised. During a confrontation, he punches James in the nose, both of them get nosebleeds at the same time, as if they are one and the same person. Simon decides they are the same person, or at least they are inextricably intertwined somehow.
The film's subdued color palate, vaguely art deco office design and overall ominous tone remind me of Terry Gilliam's 1985 film “Brazil.” In this story, Simon leads a life of quiet desperation in a very dispiriting environment devoid of any beauty or warmth. Everything is drab and unfriendly. Simon is invisible, except when he is the butt of jokes. We learn that suicides are epidemic in the drab apartment complex where Simon lives, so he isn't the only one feeling hopeless.
Simon is forced to take the most desperate of measures to break out of the trap he finds himself in. Jesse Eisenberg very successfully pulls off the dual roles of Simon and James, while Mia Wasikowska is effective in her role as a woman just as hopeless as Simon is. Wallace Shawn of “Melinda and Melinda” is suitably irritating as Simon's clueless boss.
Although Existentialism is out of fashion these days, I think a lot of people will be able to identify with Simon's plight in this film. It works as both absurdest comedy and as social commentary. This film was directed by Richard Ayoade, who appears to be one of the best young directors around. This film rates a B.
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