Impressive in style, tone and edgy performances, The Double — even at a brief 93 minutes — is also a chore to sit through. Actor-director Richard Ayoade (Submarine) adapts Fyodor Dostoevsky’s mental-meltdown novel as an indy black comedy. It’s Wes Anderson meets George Orwell meets Franz Kafka, unfolding in a Cold War–era, Eastern European episode of The Office designed by Terry Gilliam in Brazil mode. Which sounds a lot cooler than it plays.
In this sunless, sepia cityscape of cramped apartment blocks, ancient office furniture and dripping concrete alleys, Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon, an office drone as drab and unmemorable as his putty-colored suit. “No offense, mate,” says a colleague, “but you’re pretty unnoticeable — bit of a nonperson.”
Working at a data processing center, Simon finds excuses to take papers for photocopying to colleague Hannah (Mia Wasikowska, working hard in a role that swings from melancholy angel to manic pixie dream girl). Simon can’t find the cojones to admit he adores her, or ask her on a date. Or complete an entire sentence in her presence.
Everything changes when a new hire arrives. A fellow named James (also Eisenberg). Simon faints at the sight of the guy, since they’re identical in every way. The joke — the attenuated joke — is that no one else notices this. That’s because, in demeanor and action, James is everything Simon isn’t: confident, brash, vulgar. He’d rather cut corners and take credit for other people’s work than labor hard and not be acknowledged (like Simon) for it.
You can see where this is going. Cozying up to him like his new, best, fabulous buddy, James soon steals all credit for Simon’s achievement, and worse. As we watch Simon implode in response, the movie captures the injustice, frustration and rage most of us have experienced when we feel overlooked and underappreciated. Which is one of The Double’s challenges. Yes, movies can sell us any sort of story. But how many of us go to them to see our sorriest fears and grudges reflected? Most of us want escapism and release from the stories we watch onscreen.
Yes, that’s an easy generalization. But there’s a bigger problem here. The movie’s opportunist doppelgänger James may be a prick, but he’s a lot more fun to hang out with than that man-sized nasal drip Simon. Who wants to identify with him? Eisenberg is also way more fun playing James — a kissing cousin of his arrogant Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.
Still, a lot of people seem to really like this movie. That would include the deep and widely talented supporting cast. In a time when every movie seems to be a comic book spinoff or a broad comedy heavy on vomit or Melissa McCarthy, you can imagine how eager good actors are to sign on for something offbeat like this. The people who turn up for brief pungent bits include Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Phyllis Somerville, Cathy Moriarty, Chris O’Dowd, Paddy Considine and James Fox. Nice work, to limited effect.
The biggest challenge The Double faces is built in, designed by its creators in, well, its design. The visual and tonal elements that distinguish the movie are also what sabotage it. Filming a surreal storyline in a surreal style is something like a double-negative. The redundant choices nullify each other; the movie feeds on itself while leaving the viewer hungry.
The Double. With Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska and Jesse Eisenberg. Co-written and directed by Richard Ayoade. Rated R. 93 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.