Submarine, Ayoade’s thoroughly enjoyable debut in 2011, felt a little too heavy handed in its parallels to the likes of Billy Liar, Rushmore and The 400 Blows but still showed obvious creative talent and grandiose potential. In his follow up, the demure director catapults ahead of all reasonable expectations by creating a truly visionary adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoevsky novella. It’s a fabulously dark film with a flair for gorgeously stylistic surrealism that, while clearly influenced by certain filmmakers and the novella itself, feels like something of unique identity to his mind and a deft execution to match.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a meek, low-level bureaucrat who wears an oversized grey suit that’s actually the perfect metaphorical fit for him – an apparent personality to match the colour but with the personal ability to fill it out. Not so much ignored at work as simply invisible, his boss Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn) couldn’t tell you whether it’s Simon’s first day or his seventh year with the company. Mr. Papadopoulos does however know all about his new employee, James Simon (Jesse Eisenberg, not Eisenberg Jesse), who much to Simon’s disarray is his physical clone with an antithetical temperament. His life is practically commandeered by James who’s rewarded with praise for Simon’s skilled work and captures the heart of Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a co-worker that Simon has been ineffectively pining after for quite possibly his entire seven year tenure at the company.
Making the situation even more frightening, Simon is essentially confronted with the version of himself that he deeply wishes to express – a confident, suave and assured human being who’s not only noticed but massively appreciated. James is somebody that he feels deserving to be yet remains impossibly attainable, providing a touching personal resonance to the narrative for anyone else who feels frustration, anger, sorrow and – most heartbreakingly – helpless in their timidness, perhaps even Ayoade himself.
Eisenberg capably pulls off the two characters in a much more impressive fashion than the easy comparison of Michael Cera in Youth in Revolt, without a fake mustache as assistance. He displays a talent for subtlety in tackling this showcase of acting diversity that unfortunately wasn’t apparent when he struggled in the more emotional junctures of Night Moves. It’s difficult to be as introverted and unassuming as Simon while remain continually interesting and watchable, but Eisenberg does and in the process arguably plays his strongest work. His pairing with Mia Wasikowska results in some really sweet moments where Wasikowska continues to add to her prolific and impressive young career.
Chock-a-block with pleasing cameos from the Submarine cast (the highlight being Paddy Considine, who should just make a career of turning up in every Ayoade film performing wacky and eccentric caricatures), it’s symbolic of the directors journey from his first film as he evolves as a filmmaker while retaining particular elements that could form his identity. Ironically, while the dark comedy hits at all attempts you feel that Ayoade plays it a little too subdued and that these moments couldn’t afford a little more push and comedic exploitation that they were given in his debut. A minor niggle in an otherwise remarkable film that is as absurdist as it is poignant.