Review: Jesse Eisenberg does a classic 'Double' take with Dostoevsky story

 Jesse Eisenberg in 'The Double'
Jesse Eisenberg in 'The Double'
Photo by Magnolia Pictures
| Thursday, June 19, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

“The Double,” a classic take on the question of identity and the madness that obsessing about it too much can reveal, was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and is the basis of a cerebral thriller with Jesse Eisenberg.

He plays a clerk trapped in a gloomy corporation run by a distant Colonel (James Fox). Simon James is the sort of nobody that nobody notices — pushed around, bullied.

“How long you been here, son?” the boss (Wallace Shawn) wants to know. “Just started, eh?”

“Yes, sir. Seven years.”

Even the sliding doors, omnipresent in this retro-future of adding machines, cathode-ray tube computer screens and permanently dim lighting, torment Simon.

He's living in a world where nobody knows his name. Not even the lovely Hannah, who runs the photocopying room, gives him a thought. But he thinks about her.

Then, the unnoticed Simon is confronted with the very noticeable James (Eisenberg, too). He is confident where Simon is tentative. James is aggressive where Simon is nebbishy. Simon might be the only person who realizes they look exactly alike, but James does, too. The more-assertive James begins to offer life, love and dating advice to Simon. But Simon, and we, suspect James of more sinister motives.

Richard Ayoade, who directed the dark-and-dense teen romance “Submarine,” concentrates on externals, here. “The Double” looks like science fiction, a “Dark City” built around a Kafka-esque nightmare of a Dostoevsky story. Ayoade's background means he plays up the humor inherent in this scenario, at least partly through casting. Shawn is perfect as a grating boob of a boss, Sally Hawkins makes a dry, contemptuous receptionist, one of many who refuse to acknowledge that Simon exists.

Eisenberg, perfectly, pliably put upon, is the engine that drives this picture. Simon's inept longing for Hannah, for human connection of any sort, shows in his hurt eyes. And Eisenberg is just as convincing as James, whose cocky patter and arrogance seem a natural extension of Eisenberg's turn in “The Social Network.” One guy we fear for, the other we fear.

It's not a great or a deep take on identity, or even that novel as a concept.

Dostoevsky wrote “The Double” in 1846, and the timeless theme is mostly what resonates here, not the much-imitated sense of future past that Ayoade & Co. borrow (see “Brazil”). But, as with “Enemy,” what's worth the price of admission is the acting exercise, the subtle wonders of seeing a great talent create two versions of the same man — one confident, conniving, the other hesitant, waiting for that next hurt and humiliation.

Roger Moore is a writer for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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