In some stories about doubles, the arrival of the doppelganger sends the protagonist into a crisis. Not so in “The Double,” where our hero is already decidedly cracked.
Meet Simon James, played by Jesse Eisenberg, a worker drone in a dull dystopian society. Given how poorly he’s treated at work and how much he’s ignored by his dream girl Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), you might think things could not get much drearier for Simon.
Well. Meet James Simon, played by Jesse Eisenberg, a rakish, charming new employee — Simon’s exact physical likeness, yet an instant hit with his co-workers, the boss (Wallace Shawn), and, of course, Hannah. Despite an initial flirtation between the two men — the lookalikes share a night on the town together, and Simon uncharacteristically has a gas — the new guy cuts an increasingly sinister figure in our hero’s desperate existence.
“The Double” is directed by Richard Ayoade, the British actor-writer who co-starred in “The Watch” last year. Ayoade’s 2010 coming-of-age film “Submarine” showed him to be a filmmaker with clever instincts but still in search of a style of his own (Wes Anderson was undoubtedly checking his pockets after that one).
For “The Double,” Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine adapted a Dostoyevsky novella, imagining the story in a curiously mid-20th century setting: rotary gizmos, analog screens, Soviet-style housing. They are, of course, free to create any kind of futuristic (or parallel-reality) hellscape they like, but this one so closely recalls previous efforts by George Orwell and Terry Gilliam that it lacks the slap of the truly revelatory.
That’s too bad, because for at least two-thirds of its running time “The Double” is funny and engaging. Eisenberg is nimble as always, particularly when his alpha-self is running rings around Simon the doormat, and Wasikowska is a much harder film-noir type than “Jane Eyre” or “Stoker” would have suggested.
The film’s grimy atmosphere begins to feel put-on after a while, and Ayoade can’t generate something new out of a “Twilight Zone” ending.
So far, Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” will remain the year’s top study of the terror of confronting one’s mirror image, which, true to literary tradition, is always really about confronting one’s self. That movie really did come up with an original ending, a whopper of a non sequitur. By comparison, “The Double” stays in the minor leagues.
“The Double” (two and a half stars)
In a dystopian society, an office drone becomes disconcerted by his exact double, a much more aggressive and charming guy (Jesse Eisenberg plays both roles). The movie’s pretty engaging for a while, even if its future world looks familiar as a 20th-century nightmare and its grimy design feels a little put-on. Mia Wasikowska co-stars.
Rating: R, for language, violence
Opens: Friday at the Varsity theater in Seattle.