The third in a string of movies released this year with a doppelganger theme, “The Double” neatly splits the difference between the stylish but unsatisfying arthouse thriller “Enemy” (which featured dueling Jake Gyllenhaals) and the more crowd-pleasing comedy “Muppets Most Wanted” (in which Kermit the Frog faced off against a criminal lookalike named Constantine).
Loosely inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella about a shy clerk and his manipulative double, the new film is part absurdist comedy and part tragedy, part love story and part existential allegory. In the lead role, Jesse Eisenberg delivers a mesmerizing performance — two of them, really — as the timid Simon James and his spitting image, the coolly self-confident James Simon.
The story is simple. Simon, a nebbish nobody toiling in a “Brazil”-like cubicle farm, pines for his pretty co-worker, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), while trying to work up the nerve to ask her out. When a new hire suddenly shows up who looks exactly like Simon — minus the paralyzing insecurity and with a sexy swagger that catches Hannah’s eye — life for Simon slowly starts spinning out of control.
Adapted for the screen by director Richard Ayoade (“Submarine”) and Avi Korine (the kid brother of “Spring Breakers” auteur Harmony Korine), “The Double” retains all of Dostoevsky’s central themes. Madness, alienation and the loss of identity swirl around the film’s edges like film-noir fog.
At the same time, the filmmakers inject a much-needed dose of dark humor into the tale. Though suicide is epidemic in this retro-futuristic society — a decrepit, Orwellian dystopia with the dingy, sagging look of a used tea bag and the office infrastructure of mid-20th-century Moscow — the rampant hopelessness is treated as something of a joke. After Simon witnesses a neighbor jump to his death early in the tale, a pair of detectives investigating the incident argue about whether Simon might also be at risk of killing himself.
“Should I put him down as a ‘no’?” asks one notebook-toting cop, after Simon denies being depressive.
“Put him down as a ‘maybe,’ ” says his partner, eyeing our hero suspiciously.
That snatch of dismissive dialogue feels like foreshadowing, and rightly so. Dostoevsky’s story was certainly a dark and pessimistic thing. But Eisenberg’s Simon, even in this lighter and brighter context, comes across as fatally doomed at times. In certain recurring scenes — as when subway and elevator doors seem to repeatedly slam in Simon’s face, metaphorically castrating him — the character’s impotence is palpable and painful to watch.
Yet Ayoade and Korine manage to avoid, for the most part, the book’s gloomiest depths. That’s accomplished by focusing less on Simon’s career competition with James — who quickly eclipses Simon in the eyes of their boss (Wallace Shawn) — than on their romantic rivalry.
One surreally funny scene features James coaching Simon, a la “Cyrano de Bergerac,” after Simon manages to get a date with Hannah by pretending to be James. (Got that?)
There’s nothing even close to this nutty in the book, but it helps to sell the story.
As “The Double” progresses, however, it becomes increasingly less funny, not to mention ever more difficult to tell Simon from James (or even to be sure whether they are, in fact, two different people). The film’s deliberate, even enthusiastic embrace of ambiguity will probably play better with a certain class of viewer.
There’s a name for that class of viewer. They’re called readers. Most of the time, “The Double” feels less like watching a book than reading a movie.
★ ★ ½
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains, obscenity and suggestive dialogue. 93 minutes.