Two Jesse Eisenbergs face off against each other in one of the many unusual shots in "The Double." Credit: Magnolia Pictures
'The Double' Director: Richard Ayoade Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Jesse Eisenberg Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
Richard Ayoade’s “The Double” isn’t the most distinctive portrait of the workplace as purgatory. It’s got some Kafka in it, plus bits of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” where the future isn’t too futuristic, still retaining the grime and grit and malfunctioning doodads from another age. In that respect, it goes further than Gilliam: It seems to take place in an alternate universe that’s a fantasy/nightmare Eastern Europe, one that never figured out digital technology even as the bureaucracy grew larger. Even the photocopier is somehow analogue. Everything’s rusty and dark, and the sun, on the rare times characters are outside, never comes out. It feels old-hat but just fresh enough — a hand-me-down vision that you’ve only mostly seen before.
It’s fun/maddening living in this world, especially as Ayaode likes to throw you off, sometimes literally: Periodically the camera readjusts slightly, as though it was being wielded by a sleeping operator who kept kicking it in between snores. It's such a palpable feeling of comic unease that it’s almost too bad there is a story, albeit one loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella. Jesse Eisenberg at his absolutely meekest plays Simon James, a clerk at an anonymous office monkey job. He’s in love with the new girl (Mia Wasikowska), who seems like the perfect unobtainable girl — except that, in a rant one night, she reveals she hates that cliche almost as much as you might.
The been-there-done-that of the sensitive guy pining for the mesmerizing girl does limit “The Double” more than it should, even after it’s gotten to its big hook: Into Simon James’ office walks James Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), his exact double except in temperament. Where Simon James is withdrawn, James Simon is alpha male and jerkish, and much more willing to do something with Waskikowska’s Hannah than his competition. The battle over the girl isn’t terribly involving, even with a fighting Wasikowska. But Eisenberg’s James Simon is a treat, tapping into the best parts of the actor’s talents.
Ayoade seems much more goosed by the more unpleasant characters anyway, including his undermining superiors (Wallace Shawn and Noah Taylor) and an all-too-brief appearance from Chris Morris. When the film is simply firing off dark jokes, it reminds one that Ayoade works best with the brash, not the quiet. “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” the fake bad TV show he made with Matthew Holness, oozed ersatz misplaced confidence, especially when it came to bad special effects. (Nothing has ever done deliberate incompetence with such precision.) Ayoade’s previous film, “Submarine,” gained much from having an opinionated, not just sullen, moony protagonist. One almost wants to see this same world spent on a different situation. It could even star the evil Eisenberg.