Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, Richard Ayaode’s ("Submarine") "The Double" is a masterpiece of design and style, even though it reminds you of a handful of other movies you’ve seen before.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a programmer at a company that does some sort of non-descript "regression analysis" work in cramped cubicles that seem both futuristic and dated in equal parts. Almost Orwellian in how his work-life is presented, there is a harshness to his environment that doesn’t help the fact that he feels invisible by everyone around him. This occurs both at work and everywhere else the day takes him; mostly on the subway and at a local diner where the grumpy waitress (Cathy Moriarty) treats him like dirt. The one thing that gives him hope is the co-worker he is mildly obsessed with, and who lives in the building across from him. Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) is one of the few that notices him, but not enough to make him not feel like he is disappearing.
Enter James Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), who arrives at his workplace as the hotshot new employee. Looking exactly like him, James is his doppelganger right down to their clothing. Yet in personality, James is his exact opposite. Confident, brash, and manipulative, James befriends his lookalike in the guise of helping him break out of his shell. But ultimately, he starts to take over his life -- and that includes Hannah.
Interestingly, the film bears much resemblance to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s "Delicatessen" and even a bit of the Cohen Bros. "Barton Fink." From the yellowish tint in Simon’s workplace to the harsh lighting of his apartment building and subway cars, this is a film that is layered with style. Lighting plays a big part in the film and this makes every scene pop in a noir-esque and almost surrealistic way. Which is a good thing. Visually this rather short film keeps you interested just by look alone. The story is the conundrum.
While it is fairly straightforward (as opposed to this year’s other doppelgänger film, "Enemy," starring Jake Gyllenhaal, which was a delightfully moody head-scratcher), there is a lot going on under the surface that almost makes the film need another viewing. There is an amazing monologue in the middle of the film where Simon tells James exactly how he feels: "It’s like I’m permanently outside myself. Like you could push your hand straight through me if you wanted to. And I couldn’t see the man I want to be versus the type of man I actually am. And I know that I’m doing it, but I’m incapable of doing what needs to be done. I’m like Pinocchio. I’m a wooden boy. Not a real boy. And it kills me."
Hearing these words, you know that there is a lot more going on in this film that might readily be apparent. Is it possible there is really only one character? That Simon has actually split himself apart so he can act on the things he wants to act on, but then regrets it and wants to destroy the part of him that has gotten out of control? Or is it something more diabolical? These are the questions that keep you invested in the film.
Luckily, so do the actors. While Eisenberg is now making a living out of playing nebbish awkward characters, he is able to break out a bit with the alter-ego James. He is clearly having a grand time playing both characters, and despite looking the same and wearing the same clothes, it is easy to tell them apart. He really gives a tour de force performance here (as much of cliché as that phrase is), but it’s nice to see that his Oscar caliber performance in "The Social Network" wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Mia Wasikowska continues to make a name for herself bringing such a winsomeness to her roles that she is a pure pleasure to watch.
This is another movie that isn’t for everyone. It’s relentlessly stylistic and doesn’t have a totally clear narrative. But there’s something exciting about that. Ayaode’s film brings up questions about why things were designed the way they were. David Crank as the Production Designer and Denis Schnegg as the Art Director have done an exemplary job at creating a very singular world that pops. You almost want to be given time to look at the details and question everything -- more out of fascination than being critical. (Calculators have no numbers. Equipment seems old, yet almost Steampunk in design.) It’s all endlessly mesmerizing, and while I’m not sure if I totally understood how Simon resolved everything in the end, I can appreciate the journey I was on. It might seem to be a little style over substance, but I actually think there’s a lot of substance there. You just might have to work a little to get at it.