Movie Review: It’s Eisenberg times two in “The Double”

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Identity and our ability to control our own is very much in the zeitgeist,
which goes a long way in explaining why there are two current films built around
the confused search for identity, both adaptations of novels titled “The
Double.”
The muddled puzzle of “Enemy” has a college professor (Jake Gyllenhaal)
stalking, and then confronted by a man who seems to be an alternate version of
himself. It’s based on a book by Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago. “The
Double,” the classic take on this question of identity and the madness that
obsessing about it too much can reveal, was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and is
the basis of a cerebral thriller starrying Jesse Eisenberg.
For all of both film’s surreal touches and stylistic flourishes, “The Double”
is the one that makes more sense.
Eisenberg plays a clerk trapped in a gloomy corporation run by a distant
Colonel (James Fox). Simon James is the sort of nobody that nobody notices —
pushed around, bullied.
“How long you been here, son?” the boss (Wallace Shawn) wants to know. “Just
started, eh?”
“Yes sir. Seven years.”
Even the sliding doors, omnipresent in this retro-future of adding machines,
cathode ray tube computer screens and permanently dim lighting, torment Simon.
He’s living in a world where nobody knows his name.>
Not even the lovely Hannah, who runs the photocopying room, gives him a
thought. But he thinks about her. She puts a spring in his step, even as he
spies on her in her apartment with his spotting scope, puzzling over the torn
bits of bloody paper left over from the drawings she makes by pricking her
fingers.
Then the unnoticed Simon is confronted with the very noticeable James
(Eisenberg, too). He is confident where Simon is tentative. James is aggressive
where Simon is nebbishy. Simon would be the only person who realizes they look
exactly alike, but James does, too. The more assertive James begins to offer
life, love and dating advice to Simon. But Simon and we suspect James of more
sinister motives.
“This is NOT me!” Simon protests. But no one listens.
Richard “The IT Crowd” Ayoade, who directed the dark and dense teen romance
“Submarine,” concentrates on externals, here. “The Double” looks like science
fiction, a “Dark City” built around a Kafka-esque nightmare of a Dostoevsky
story. Ayoade’s background means he plays up the humor inherent in this
scenario, at least partly through casting. Shawn is perfect as a grating boob of
a boss, Sally Hawkins makes a dry, contemptuous receptionist, one of many who
refuse to acknowledge that Simon exists.
But Eisenberg, perfectly, pliably put upon, is the engine that drives this
picture. Simon’s inept longing for Hannah, for human connection of any sort,
shows in his hurt eyes. And Eisenberg is just as convincing as James, whose
cocky patter and arrogance seem a natural extension of Eisenberg’s turn in “The
Social Network.” One guy we fear for, the other we fear.
It’s not a great or a deep take on identity, or even that novel as a concept.
Dostoevsky wrote “The Double” in 1846, and the timeless theme is mostly what
resonates here, not the muc- imitated sense of future past that Ayoade & Co.
borrow (see “Brazil”). But as with “Enemy,” what’s worth the price of admission
is the acting exercise, the subtle wonders of seeing a great talent create two
versions of the same man with just downcast eyes, stooped shoulders and a
difference in walks — one confident, conniving, the other hesitant, just
waiting for that next hurt and humiliation.

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MPAA Rating:R for language
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, James Fox, Sally
Hawkins
Credits: Written and directed by Richard Ayoade, based on a novel by Fyodor
Dostoevsky. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:33

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