Simon has ongoing difficulty with doors, especially in subways and elevators. They never operate or cooperate with him, complicating his many awkward entrances and exits. We might call him — what? Inept? Schlemiel? A schmegegge? (That’s a great old Yiddishism for second-rater.) The precise word for him hasn’t been invented. He’s not a Beta or even a Gamma guy. But his life is about to be upended by an Alpha Male alter ego.
“The Double” likewise resists categorization (and marketing efforts) as a darkly funny film adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella. The words “funny” and “Dostoyevsky” are rarely linked, but this is as close to comedy as Fyodor gets and — in the eccentric hands of British director Richard Ayoade — comes as close to screen realization as it’s ever going to get.
Agonizingly shy Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is a lowly clerk in a nameless government agency. Submissive and treated like dirt by his boss and even his mother, he is also ignored by lovely Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the copy-room girl of his dreams.
We can hardly blame Hannah. It takes him ages to work up his nerve to tell her, “I bought you a present but decided it wasn’t appropriate.” She nods pleasantly. Later, he says, “This used to be my favorite song.” She nods, a little less pleasantly, and replies, “There’s no music playing.”
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Yasmin Paige, Wallace Shawn.
Rating: R for language.
Enter new co-worker James Simon, who is Simon James’ exact double in appearance but polar opposite in personality — confident, charismatic and cocksure with the ladies. James has all the charm Simon lacks and is instantly adored by his colleagues, who never notice the uncanny resemblance between the two. At first they’re fast friends.
But as James gradually usurps Simon's life, they’ll become mortal enemies.
In Dostoyevsky’s original story (“Dvoynik” in Russian), the doubled-up clerk is “titular councilor rank 9” — a hopelessly low-level bureaucrat in the hoary old Table of Ranks established by Peter the Great. The doppelganger idea wasn’t original even in Dostoyevsky’s time, and he himself said “I failed utterly” in his Gogolesque attempt. But Nabokov called it “the best thing he ever wrote ... a perfect work of art.”
The artful screenplay at hand, by director Ayoade and Avi Korine, sets the tale not in Russia or America but in some generic Kafkaland, during some “outdated futuristic” present. Oxymoronic enough? The ambiguity of time and place is epitomized by the fabulous copying machine over which Hannah presides: a monstrosity that fills an entire room and takes forever to produce a single Xerox. Such claustrophobic set and art designs — the opposite of standard sci-fi stuff — perfectly evoke Simon’s inner state.
Mr. Ayoade, the child of a Norwegian mother and a Nigerian father, grew up in Suffolk and studied law at Cambridge. This and his sole previous film (the terrific “Submarine”) have been clearly influenced by David Lynch (especially the nightmarish atmospherics of “Eraserhead”) and the surrealism of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”
Mr. Eisenberg (“Social Network,” “The Squid and the Whale”) makes for a quietly quirky Simon James — after seven years, forced to defend his “corrupted” ID card upon arriving at work every day. I enjoyed his stuttery rapid-fire delivery, though it’s not to everyone’s taste. (Rex Reed said the film “stars creepy Jesse Eisenberg in two roles, when one is always more than enough.”) Mr. Eisenberg is his own worst enemy re: the press: “I don’t watch movies” in general, he told a recent interviewer — and never sees his own. How annoyingly precious. But we must try not to hold it against him.
Gorgeous Ms. Wasikowska (“Jane Eyre,” Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”) is a fine foil as Hannah. Yasmin Paige plays the slutty daughter of silly office manager Wallace Shawn. Both of them are a riot, but no less so than Phyllis Somerville as Simon’s hideous mom and Cathy Moriarty (of immortal “Raging Bull” fame) as the even-more-hideous waitress he can’t avoid.
Beautifully lit and photographed by Erik Wilson, this wickedly clever Orwellian vision taps into Dostoyevsky’s reservoir of psychic turmoil and alienation — cynical and misanthropic and semi-satirically bleak from start to finish-- even if its clarity and underlying tragedy get suffocated by the stylistics.
“The Double” may well leave you confused as well as amused. But its odd combination of humor and melancholy is seductive. The universality of loneliness lies in Simon’s “Rear Window” use of a telescope to spy on Hannah — and on himself: “I’ve decided to end my life because I don’t exist.”
Opens today at the Harris Theater, Downtown.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: reached at email@example.com.