Even when we have an identity we can't stand, it's still irksome when someone else tries to adopt it as his own. In many ways, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), the protagonist in Richard Ayoade's adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double, is a foil to the character Ayoade played in The IT Crowd, Maurice Moss: Mutable, amenable and largely unnoticeable. Everything about The Double is deliberate--from the consistent mirror images to the nondescript cinematography. And it is in this meticulousness that Ayoade continues to show his growth as a writer-director (2010's Submarine, also an adaptation, was his directorial debut for feature film).
Like most of Ayoade's previous projects (The Mighty Boosh included), he tends to create a visual landscape that seems outside of any specific time period, though if one were to guess, the 1960s seems like the most likely decade. Following the lonely, isolated life of Simon, who works in an office and performs the sort of unclassifiable work that office drones perform, Ayoade paints a grim portrait of life as a "non-person," interchangeable with just about everyone else. The only being who truly acknowledges Simon's existence is his aged mother, who lives in a nursing home and expects Simon to be available at her beck and call, which he usually is.
Simon's sole source of light in a dark, dismal world is a girl named Hannah (Mia Wasikowska, who has already appeared in another great film this year), who lives in the building across from his and also works in his office. Afraid to approach her, the two are finally brought together by the suicide of a man that jumps from her side of the building. As the man free-falls, he makes eye contact with Simon and waves to him. Once the body has been taken away, Hannah and Simon go out to the local diner Simon frequents. Hannah confesses that she yelled at the man the previous night for essentially stalking her. Their conversation is interrupted by a phone call from Simon's mother, prompting Hannah to leave. The next day, Simon, who has constant issues with getting into his own office building, is kicked out of a mandatory event. It is at this moment, that his doppelganger, James Simon, enters the picture.
At first, Simon and James strike up a cordial enough friendship. Watching James interact with others and his confidence in everything he does is fascinating for Simon. On the way back from a night out, Simon feels comfortable enough to tell James, "It's like I'm permanently outside myself. Like you could push your hand straight through me if you wanted to." When he looks over to see James' reaction, Simon balks when he notices that James has fallen asleep on the train.
James has his own woman to pursue, the boss' (played by Wallace Shawn of Clueless fame) daughter, a surly sort who treats Simon like shit, asking questions like "Why won't you die?", but then, whenever James poses as Simon, ends up having sex with him. If nothing else, The Double proves that women have an undeniable predilection for assholes. As James starts to become more demanding of Simon--asking him for the keys to his apartment to bring back women, taking credit for his work, etc.--Simon can see that he's let things get too out of hand.
To make matters worse, Hannah has developed an attraction to James, much to Simon's complete and total vexation. Gradually, he begins to realize that he can regain the upper hand, if he's willing to sacrifice himself in the process. His self-effacing persona begins to pay off once he discovers that his pain is just as much James' pain. Concluding with a somewhat different ending from Dostoyevsky's version, Simon's beautiful and ironic final line is: "I'd like to think I'm pretty unique."