Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), the hero of Richard Ayoade's comic thriller The Double, is a spineless, toothless, whimpering corporate drone. He's trapped in a menial job at a ghoulish company that looks like it was born out of some Kafkaesque nightmare. The world that we see here seems eternally bound to the vacuum-tube technology of the 1950s, and the vague hum of machines hangs in the air. We never learn what function this business performs, and Simon himself may scarcely know. Amid all of this bleakness, a source of hope arises in the form of Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a copy girl at the company for whom Simon yearns -- although he can barely summon the moxie to speak with her. Then Simon's doppelganger materializes. Called James Simon (Eisenberg again), he seems to possess all of the qualities Simon James lacks, including confidence, suaveness with Hannah, a flair for business, and an ability to make enormous strides at work. Before long, James seems poised to take over Simon's life.
This picture may have been adapted by Ayoade and Avi Korine from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel of the same title, but it finds more recent pop-culture antecedents in Terry Gilliam's sci-fi comedy Brazil, Michael Radford's Orwell adaptation 1984 (the brilliant production design by Joseph Crank for The Double echoes both movies), and -- in its premise -- the 1946 Walt Disney cartoon short Donald's Double Trouble, in which Donald Duck must wrest his life back from his identical twin. This is a fun conceit that provides an enormous amount of comedic and dramatic mileage. Unfortunately, Ayoade's direction - which many viewers found so satisfying in his cult hit Submarine -- comes across here as maladroit: He seldom sets up and delivers his gags effectively on camera, so we're forced to look beyond the sophomoric execution and laugh solely at the concepts on display, which is a lot to ask of an audience. For example, an early scene has Simon struggling to leave a subway car to greet Hannah, only to be immobilized by oncoming passengers who are carrying enormous brown boxes onto the train. It's a funny idea, but the dramatic blocking and the facial reactions from Eisenberg don't ring true -- there are enormous gaps between the actors, leaving plenty of space for anyone (confident or not) to easily stroll between the men. In addition, Eisenberg pantomimes very broadly here, with the result that nothing about his response to the situation feels credible. And Ayoade's visual-storytelling skills aren't up to par either: One of the central story motifs, for instance, involves Simon watching Hannah through a telescope in his apartment each evening as she ritualistically draws an illustration, tears it up, and throws it into the incinerator. On a nightly basis, Simon races down to the boiler room to retrieve the scraps of paper before they burn. It's an inspired concept, yet the shot choices are so poorly done that we initially have a difficult time ascertaining what is going on.
Nor is the narrative here ideally conceived. It's irritating, for example, that Ayoade and Korine waffle over whether the supporting characters are able to tell the difference between Simon and James depending on the needs of the scene at hand; the twists in the story seem born out of convenience. And if the setup and initial stages of the picture feel awkward and disappointing, the conclusion strikes one as so overwrought and complicated that the film becomes totally hopeless. We get two Eisenbergs running around, switching places, and experiencing different fates, yet cannot tell who is who; it's about as clear of a denouement as the finale of Andrzej Zulawski's Possession, with its multiple Sam Neills all suffocating and wreaking havoc on Isabelle Adjani.
The Double is a particularly disappointing film because it seemed so full of promise, and surely must have looked like a dream project on the page. Eisenberg and Wasikowska do what they can, but the execution is too poor to send the movie aloft.