Surely, at some point, they thought of casting Michael Cera. Richard Ayoade’s often marvelous The Double, an existential jest set in a bureaucratic dystopia so familiar and lightly comic it may as well be Kafka Fantasy Camp, stars Jesse Eisenberg, the Oscar winner and future Lex Luthor, as a beleaguered schlemiel whose life is upended by a stranger who is identical to him in every way — just somehow better.
That’s close to what Eisenberg was to Cera, back in the Zombieland days, when he seemed to be cast as the Arrested Development star’s off-brand equivalent. Since then, he’s distinguished himself as a compellingly brittle screen presence, a singular actor best not at nice guys but at guys you’re surprised aren’t more nice — the prickly and insecure outcasts who lash out at anyone who bothers getting close.
Eisenberg’s excellent as his own bad-news double in The Double, playing a more unsettling doppelganger than Cera managed in Youth in Revolt, which involved a tricked-up mustache and too-cute French name. Until a couple of climatic facial injuries, these dueling Eisenbergs are indistinguishable from each other, right down to hair (shaggy) and costume (comically oversized ’80s suit). But one’s the toast of the office complex they work in, while the other’s a yearning nobody clerk of the sort common in Eastern European lit.
Both are also better-looking than Eisenberg’s given credit for. He’s rakish and tousled, more diffident man than sweetly shy boy, and there’s a touch of Jagger in the set of his jaw. Eisenberg’s mild handsomeness proves quite funny, as one of his identical doubles is hailed as a dreamboat and model employee while the other, the protagonist, simply doesn’t register. He has to sign in as a visitor with his office’s security guard because, even after years of toil there, he’s not in “the system.”
That system, like the film’s whole world, is like a Soviet 2014 as imagined by a Commodore 64 in 1982 — it’s chintzy, clunky, 8-bit, and looks like it started out uniform in that Eastern bloc way but has, over time, been incrementally modified with whatever junked components people could find. If the story and milieu are familiar, the look is worth sinking into.
Ayoade, the director of Submarine, and his co-writer Avi Korine, have based The Double on a short novel by Dostoyevsky, which itself was inspired by the alienated fantasies of Gogol, and Ayoade has spoken about finding inspiration in Orson Welles’s film of Kafka’s The Trial. For all that, the The Double often feels as indebted to Brazil and Delicatessen as it does to those geniuses. Like the work of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, it’s sometimes a dazzling astonishment but also occasionally too much, so over-directed that watching it can feel like reading something typed with the caps lock on, especially toward the end, when Ayoade’s inventive repetition starts to feel like just repetition.
But most of its 90 minutes tremble with wit and welcome ambition. In the first reels, before the double arrives, Ayoade subjects the hero to choice humiliations, all staged with ace comic timing: On a near-empty subway car he’s told that he’s in somebody’s seat; after removing his suit coat at work, his antsy boss (Wallace Shawn) barks, “Put your jacket on, son! This isn’t a brothel!” Shawn is as hopped up and time-conscious as Eddie Foy Jr. in The Pajama Game, and almost as funny. The office through which he power-walks is as richly mannered as his performance, all stuttering fluorescents, baffling pipe work, and cinder blocks painted the yellow of dog teeth. Elevators seem to detest Schlemiel Eisenberg, and the sad-eyed beauty in the photocopy department (Mia Wasikowska) smiles wanly at him, polite but not interested until his double arrives, and then she only gets close to ask if he can set her up with his twin.
The best joke is that nobody else seems to notice that these guys are identical. Dashing Eisenberg larks through security; Schlemiel gets his ID badge scissored up. Whatever qualities inspire people to celebrate the one but ignore the other are absolutely mysterious — the cocksure stride of Dashing Eisenberg is far from enough to justify it. There’s resonance in the idea of the mystery of personality, especially for anyone who ever wondered why, in high schools, so many total pricks seem so beloved. Dashing Eisenberg triumphs at everything, despite being ill-equipped for his job and not even knowing what the company does; he’s a bully who steals the work of the schlemiel and paws at every woman around, including, of course, that copy-center beauty.
The conflict between these two never proves as fascinating as the film’s world, or its comic existential crises, or even its wonderful lighting design — the juddering shadows of subway cars are a perfectly realized nightmare. Early on, the Schlemiel Eisenberg peeps through a telescope at the sad-eyed beauty, who lives across the way, a hobby that the movie understands is creepy rather than sweet. Ayoade stages this as a Rear Window homage, of course, and mines the setup for some tense jolts, most memorably a surprising (and superbly shot) act of violence. After that, the film’s dark playfulness and familiarity are enriched by dread. Yes, we’ve seen soul-crushing office hellscapes since as far back as King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) or Tati’s Playtime (1967), but The Double, with its inviting alienation, nails a curious mood that’s been too long absent from contemporary film: the anxious admission that the world might be weighted against the plucky individual, and that prickling you feel just before such thoughts make a sweat break out.