Bubbling with nervous intelligence and wearing angst like a chic shroud, Jesse Eisenberg is an actor who hardly needs to be duplicated. Pretty much on his own, he survived Brooklyn puberty in The Squid and the Whale, fought off undead hordes in Zombieland and is set to go mainstream playing the villainous Lex Luthor in Zack Snyder's Batman vs. Superman. One Mark Zuckerberg, as Eisenberg incarnated the Facebook founder in The Social Network, was more than a match for both Winklevoss twins.
Yet here the actor is as the wage slave Simon James in The Double: a cipher to his coworkers, an unplaceable face to his boss (Wallace Shawn) at the office where Simon has worked efficiently for seven years, noticed but not embraced by the lovely blond Anna (Mia Wasikowska) who works with him and lives across a high-rise courtyard from him. The doors of trains and elevators peremptorily shut on Simon — a castration mechanism, and proof as well that even an electronic eye cannot detect his existence. He's a nobody. So what's nobody times two? In this movie's strange mathematics, the answer is Somebody. Somebody else, who is neither crippled by loneliness nor fettered by scruple: Simon James' double, James Simon. Two Jesse-Jameses.
The Dostoevsky novella served as the official source of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1968, barricades-busting Partner, and has also inspired dozens of doppelgänger movies, from Fight Club to the recent Enemy, Denis Villeneuve's drab drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a pair of strangers no one could tell apart. A literary theme that almost all of us can recognize — our wish for a more confident, successful and loved version of ourselves, and our suspicion that we're stuck with who we are — is played for creepy deadpan humor in this second feature adapted and directed by the Brit TV luminary Richard Ayoade. If the movie were half of a Double double feature with Enemy, it would be the top half: the one people like better.
(READ: Corliss on the two Jake Gyllenhaals in Enemy)
After serving as president of the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club (where John Oliver of The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight was his vice president), Ayoade won fame as the smart, clumsy techie Maurice Moss on The IT Crowd, which ran for five seasons on Channel 4 and later in the U.S. on IFC. His first feature, the 2010 Submarine, transformed Joe Dunthorne's alienated-teen novel into pure movie delight. From a sympathetic distance, Ayoade sketched another young fellow who feels the world only sees him when it underestimates him.
The Double, which Ayoade adapted with Avi Korine, reconvenes all the leading players of Submarine (Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine) in supporting roles, and extends the misfit-male trope of the earlier film to harrowing heights and suicidal depths.
From the first scene, Simon gets no respect. Riding in a nearly empty train car, he is approached by a man (possibly his double) who informs him, "You're in my place," and cows Simon into sitting elsewhere. Simon can't get the security guard he sees each day to recognize him — perhaps because, as his coworker Harris (Taylor) tells him, "You're pretty unnoticeable. Bit of a nonperson." Only Anna pays occasional attention. She, too, feels alone, taking selfies that she tears into pieces and throws down the trash chute. Simon, watching her through his telescope, then riffles through the refuse to retrieve the photos, paste them back together and put them in the saddest of all Valentine's books.
The appearance of James Simon at the office, and his instant acceptance by everyone there, will underline Simon James' inability to be his most attractive self. The two look exactly the same and wear identical beige suits; yet the other employees don't recognized the similarity, because James carries himself with breezy authority, and Simon is the invisible man. Simon does all the work while James appropriates his ideas, getting the credit and the promotions, as well as the ardor of every male and female — including Anna, who may eventually join Simon as one of James' victims.
Unlike Submarine, Ayoade's new film makes little attempt to ingratiate. Simon's ordeal is a spectacle, not a tragedy meant to sear the viewer's soul; it's less psychological than satirical. The Double also borrows narrative and visual cues from such fables of persecution as Orson Welles' The Trial (based on the Kafka novel) and Terry Gilliam's Brazil. As envisioned by Ayoade and production designer David Crank, the office décor and its fixtures — adding machines with no numbers — suggest what a workplace might look like if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War in the '50s or '60s and imposed its oppressive drabness worldwide. There's never enough light, except when Simon is assaulted by a harsh overhead glare, getting the third degree from his tormentors. The humor is equally dark: you're meant to take pleasure from the intricate, impish care with which Ayoade has designed Simon's dungeon.
On a visit to a nursing home — for which Simon is of course being overcharged — his aged, vacant mother (Phyllis Somerville) says dreamily, "That used to be my favorite song"; and the son sharply replies, "There is no song. And you hate music." But The Double sound track has several lovable Asian oldies, from '60s pop star Kyu Sakamoto (remember "Sukiyaki"?), the '70s Japanese pop group The Blue Comets and the Korean singer Kim Jung-mi. These vintage melodies haunt the moviegoer, and provide a wistful sound track that might be playing in the mind of Simon — the man whose double doubles his pain.