New York brings out a kind of awestruck alienation in outsiders. Fritz Lang famously caught a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline and devised a movie about class conflict in a multi-tiered city of the future — the world of his 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. Living in Queens three-quarters of a century later, dabbling in office life, Avi Korine got a similar idea: a movie version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double, updated to a milieu he describes as "a futuristic Chicago."
"There was this feeling of the world not making any sense," says Korine, who found himself returning to the Dostoyevsky novella he'd first read in high school. What struck a chord with him, he remembers, was "this idea of the world as an impassively malevolent place" — a bureaucracy that swallowed the souls and identities of workers and crushed the spirit to the point of madness.
Only he saw it as a comedy.
The Double, which opens Friday at The Belcourt after an impressive showing at the Toronto film festival in September, arrives as a collaboration between Korine and Richard Ayoade, the gifted British comic and filmmaker most familiar to American audiences for his parts in the Ben Stiller sci-fi comedy The Watch and the British sitcom The IT Crowd. It belongs to a tradition of pitch-black comedies about the oppressiveness of office culture perhaps best embodied by Terry Gilliam's Brazil, a comparison Korine's heard a lot even though he can't remember the last time he saw it.
Nor can he remember the last time he read The Double, which freed him and director/co-writer Ayoade to depart from Dostoyevsky's 1846 original. They kept the basic premise: an awkward, unpopular low-level clerk is startled by the arrival of a doppelganger. His double, who possesses all the attributes he lacks — nerve, suavity, social grace — quickly wins over colleagues and bosses, leaving Clerk 1.0 to warp and fume.
It's a showcase for actor Jesse Eisenberg, whose twin roles — mousy Simon James and raffish James Simon — play the stammering slow burn he mastered in The Squid and the Whale and Roger Dodger off the rapacious arrogance he honed to a knife's point in The Social Network. As Simon pines for a comely co-worker (Stoker's Mia Wasikowska), only to be beset by a paranoiac's parade of hostile security guards, contemptuous receptionists and dim bosses, the movie turns into what Korine describes as a bleak comic nightmare.
"The world is completely indifferent to him, in one way," Korine says, "but at the same time it's completely malevolent toward him." The sets, which give off a clammy whiff of steampunk obsolescence, suggest to him how the world might look "if the Cold War had kept going." That was Ayoade's vision, Korine says.
"He's incredibly particular and funny and talented and meticulous," he says of Ayoade, whom he met through producer Robin Fox in the years after Korine co-wrote the script for his brother Harmony's 2007 feature Mister Lonely — a fable that also concerns a protagonist overshadowed by a more appealing version of himself. It was Ayoade, he explains, who shifted the setting to "a Soviet-bloc type dream world" full of noir shadows, receding perspectives and light the color of dull mustard. The chief difference between Harmony and Ayoade as collaborators, Korine says, is that his brother is much more likely to wing it on set, while Ayoade leaves little to chance.
The Double is Korine's second produced screenplay in six years, though he says other scripts exist and he's working on more. A Nashvillian since childhood who returned here in the mid-2000s, he's also done sportswriting for several venues (including the Scene), a way of indulging his passion for boxing and prize-fighting. He was there in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago with his wife, poet Kendra DeColo, to see 49-year-old Bernard Hopkins secure the light heavyweight world titles over Beibut Shumenov. "I've been watching him since I was 13," Korine says admiringly.
But he says he plans to concentrate more on screenwriting, a profession he was inspired to try after his early job in a production office sorting through slush piles of scripts. "To this day, I much prefer deeply flawed or bad movies," he says, for the encouragement they give him: "No matter what I do, it can't be as bad as this."
Avi Korine hosts a post-film Q&A at The Belcourt after the 8:15 p.m. show Friday. Tickets available at belcourt.org.
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