It's only right that a film about doppelgängers should feel eerily familiar. That's certainly the case with writer-director Richard Ayoade's sophomore feature, The Double. While loosely adapted from Dostoevsky's novella of the same name, the film's attitude and aesthetics are strongly indebted to Aki Kaurismäki and Terry Gilliam, lifting the former's deadpan absurdism and the latter's withering view of pencil-pushers trapped in bureaucratic hamster wheels.
Granted, if ever confronted by a pencil, lowly clerk Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) would probably just apologize for getting in its way. On the odd occasion he works up the nerve to say anything, it's invariably a single word: "sorry." He's a nonentity at his dystopian office and an object of condescending pity for co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska, who wears darkness well)—until his daily routine of indignations and faint hopes is interrupted by the arrival of James Simon (Eisenberg again). Despite being physically identical to our meek protagonist, this charismatic interloper is also everything he's not, effortlessly working a cruel system that spat out Simon like an unwanted chew toy.
Ayoade's characters are thinly sketched, with their few defining traits closer to affectations. But Eisenberg wisely takes this opportunity to forgo naturalism for exaggerated physicality. From an opening sequence that sees him running afoul of train doors and turnstiles, Simon clumsily navigates the world as if it were a hostile obstacle course. Just as this renders Simon a sympathetic Chaplin-esque figure, the opportunistic James conducts himself in the manner of a cartoon villain with a gargantuan appetite, all but tossing Hannah over his shoulder like Bluto did to Olive Oyl.
And yet, despite performances every bit as stylized as the retro-futuristic set design, these characters bleed when pricked. (As we see in graphic detail as Simon and James' rivalry escalates.) Their pungent melancholy also entices the viewer's sympathy: After all, who hasn't felt invisible, or dreamt of reinventing himself as a titan capable of running roughshod over his oppressors? Given that it investigates the slipperiness of identity, it's fitting that The Double never quite carves out one of its own. Even so, much like the blade that Simon wields in an unsettling and surreal climax, it makes a lasting impression.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: The Double is rated R. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.