Film and TV

In The Double, Jesse Eisenberg shines as his own doppelgänger

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 shlemiel 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 is excellent as his own bad-news double in The Double. Until a couple of climactic 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 is 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.

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 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.

The best joke is that nobody else seems to notice that these guys are identical. Dashing Eisenberg larks through security; Shlemiel 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.

The conflict between these two never proves as fascinating as the film's world or its comic existential crises. We've seen soul-crushing office hellscapes since as far back as King Vidor's The Crowd (1928), 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, along with that prickling you feel just before such thoughts make a sweat break out.

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl