I suppose it's bad form to throw an early flag on a movie as technically proficient as The Double, but the substance of the film is polarizing enough to warrant an immediate qualifier: If you enjoy the kind of existential surrealism practiced by the likes of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam, this one is right in your wheelhouse. But if you'd rather eat worms than twist your brain into knots trying to figure out the significance of, say, repeated and disconnected images of a dead white pigeon (dove?) with a hollowed-out body filled with straw (sticks?), well ... start digging.
A word of caution, though. Possessed of no great fondness for self-referential navel-gazing, I consider myself to be generally aligned with the latter camp, enough so that I started digging right around the first time that damn bird showed up. But they pay me to watch these things, and I'll be damned if The Double didn't force me into a double-take. I still don't know exactly what happened in there, but it's a film I can't stop thinking about, and with that thinking comes a growing (gnawing, even) appreciation.
Directed and cowritten by Richard Ayoade, The Double is the story of an impossibly neutered data-collections clerk named Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg). Simon is a bit of a cog in a gray world, so unimposing that the security officer at his work doesn't remember him after seven years of dutiful service. His boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), ignores Simon's efforts at advancement and calls him "Stanley." Simon takes a shine to Hannah, the copy-room girl, but does so furtively, gazing across the span of their neighboring apartment buildings with a telescope.
Enter James Simon, the only employee to survive the shuttering of a different branch of the same firm. James Simon is a physical doppelgänger of Simon James, but the exact opposite in spirit—outgoing, charming and manipulative. James quickly becomes the office darling, gaining favor with bosses and ladies alike. The bulk of The Double's story rides the twisting relationship between Simon and James, all the way to its surprising conclusion.
Ayoade adapted the script from a lesser-known Dostoevsky novella of the same name, though significant liberties with the plot line and setting make this wholly his vision. The Double is set outside of any one identifiable time or place, with oddly designed office computers and hand dryers juxtaposed against peculiar versions of mid-20th-century TVs and telephones. Nothing seems to work quite right, as if everything was somehow already antiquated, and the resulting feel is consistently and gloriously disorienting.
Ayoade employs a steady diet of claustrophobic camera work (the only significant scene set outside the tight confines of industrial-type buildings is a bizarre nighttime funeral) that feeds upon Simon's increasingly desperate efforts to save (and, in a sense, to create) his identity in the lee of James' exponentially larger shadow. The director also works wonders with light and music in the film, creating an atmosphere that's almost soothing as he sends your brain down one rabbit-hole or another.
None of this would work without some serious lifting from Eisenberg, who already demonstrated a knack for channeling the odd combination of social awkwardness and ruthlessness in his Oscar-nominated turn as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Here, as both Simon and James, Eisenberg splits those polar attributes into two characters, and he plays both sides of the line with aplomb. The scenes that pair Simon with James—and there are many—are simply fascinating, as the meek Eisenberg fumes with indignation and the bold Eisenberg sneers back with contempt. It can't be easy, acting against yourself in another role, but Eisenberg sure makes it look like a whole lot of fun.
The Double has both a genuine sense of humor and quite a bit of heart. More than enough of both, in fact, to make up for a gratuitous dead bird or two. So if you've got any kind of tolerance for cinematic head trips, I'd highly recommend you put down the shovel, grab a ticket and strap in for the ride.
The Double screens at the Roxy Fri., May 30, through Sun., June 1. Visit theroxytheater.org.