I assume Jesse Eisenberg accepted his role in “The Double” because he thought it was going to be a film about him and Michael Cera, in which they could finally settle their score and only one would emerge victorious, his ringer T-shirt torn and bloody, mopping up the blood of the other with a tattered hoodie. Because I feel like they’re kind of the same, and I imagine they’re always in competition for film roles that call for a reedy, soft-spoken, unassuming nerd that you really pull for. I imagine when they meet girls in bars, Eisenberg often has to say, “No, actually, I wasn’t in ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,’” while Cera might take credit for “The Squid and the Whale,” depending on his mood.
Turns out, “The Double” is a stylized and surreal adaptation of a Dostoyevsky novella, in which a pitiful clerk toils unnoticed in a monochrome office, unnoticed by the girl of his dreams, played by Mia Wasikowska. Suddenly, a man who looks and dresses exactly like him appears as an employee in his office, only the double is charismatic, suave and popular and, of course, also played by Eisenberg.
Incidentally, Michael Cera already made a comedy in 2009 with a similar plot but an entirely different tone, in which he’s a reedy nerd who imagines a tough double, also played by Michael Cera, to help him score chicks and generally win at life. It was called “Youth in Revolt.” Just sayin’.
While the story is interesting and plays out in a paranoid, diabolical fashion, it is the look and execution of the film that make it worth recommending. Similar to “Brazil” or “Naked Lunch,” all of the Orwellian surroundings in which the film takes place are a sort of retro-futuristic world, bleakly Soviet looking, with antique machinery that has never actually existed.
The visual sensibility of the film worked wonderfully with the strange but predictable psychological/sci-fi fable. Arcane office tasks are carried out in a whimsically desolate, khaki-colored world presided over by someone unseen called “The Colonel.” People pass their time by playing video games or watching a fabulously weird science fiction show on tiny televisions, and these props and artifacts are particularly affecting.
There’s just one problem with a deliberately paced, artsy, mysterious film with little dialogue — you can appreciate it a great deal but still find yourself checking your watch. Fortunately, it clocked in around an hour and a half, so you can stick it out and enjoy the art direction without too much effort. When characters are deliberately drawn to be unreal and cartoonish, there isn’t much room left for emotion, and that’s not the kind of film “The Double” is. Style trumps substance, but it does so effectively, and I’m sure Jesse Eisenberg would agree that he carries off his weird role with a seriousness that I don’t think Michael Cera could have summoned.