By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Jesse Eisenberg doubles up and doubles down in The Double.
Eisenberg plays two roles, and looks the same in both. But the two personalities he brings to life are anything but alike.
The Double is a deadpan dark tragicomedy based on the 1846 Fyodor Dostoevsky novel of the same name. It’s essentially an offbeat waking nightmare that a pessimistic paranoid underling is suffering through.
In one of his two roles, Eisenberg plays meek and lonely Simon James, a corporate clerk at a hellish data-entry workplace in a distinctly dystopian society where suicide is an ordinary and frequent occurrence.
He is surprised, to say the least, when he is introduced to a new employee, James Simon -– also played by Eisenberg -– who would appear to be his exact physical double.
Yet nobody else in this Kafkaesque office seems to notice the similarity, even when it’s pointed out to them. But then, that’s par for the course: no one in the office seems to take notice of Simon. Most of them barely recognize him even though he’s been working with them for years.
But the names Simon James and James Simon aren’t the only things that are polar opposites where these two co-workers are concerned.
This doppelganger, it turns out, is everything Simon James is not: outgoing, flirtatious, aggressive, bold, and brimming with confidence — you name it.
The woman in the office whom Simon is romantically interested in (not that he’d ever let her know about his feelings) is Hannah, the duplicating machine clerk played by Mia Wasikowska, whom Simon spies on surreptitiously from a distance.
He’s not quite stalking her, but dangerously close to it.
When James — who, come to think of it, might have stepped out of a duplicating machine that spits out humans — asks Simon why he doesn’t have a girlfriend and Simon reveals to him his interest in Hannah, James offers to coach Simon and teach him how to win Hannah over, lifting a page or three out of the Cyrano de Bergerac playbook.
Which is fine, until Simon finds out that manipulative James has embarked upon his own romantic relationship with Hannah, even though he’s already involved with the daughter of their boss, Mr. Papadopoulus (Wallace Shawn).
To make matters worse for poor, self-pitying Simon, he later discovers that James has used his apartment for assignations and taken credit at the office for work that was actually done by him.
So things couldn’t get any worse for despairing Simon, right? Wrong. He is then called into the front office and informed that he has disappeared from the company’s data files.
So, his identity itself becomes the latest element to disappear from put-upon Simon’s life as a loser. His clothes obviously don’t fit and he’s already strongly alienated.
Is he perhaps going mad as well?
Director Richard Ayoade (Submarine), working on his second feature film from a fascinating and oddly funny screenplay he co-wrote with Avi Korine, was seemingly inspired by Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in his reach for the stylized, weirdly futuristic look of his gloomy offering.
But what he consciously but casually introduces to the haunting and occasionally even hypnotic proceedings is just enough ambiguity to allow viewers who are so inclined to wonder from time to time whether Simon James and James Simon are indeed actually two different people. (Say what?)
Eisenberg acquits himself admirably in the diametrically opposed roles, playing Id and Superego nimbly, aided by state-of-the-art special effects that make his scenes opposite himself visually seamless and thus that much more natural-looking and convincing.
If this two-for-the-price-of-one performance does nothing else, it at least demonstrates that Eisenberg’s best actor Oscar nomination for playing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010’s The Social Network was no fluke.
So we’ll match 3 stars out of 4 for this stimulatingly surreal spitting-image dramedy. The Double is singularly impressive.