Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is a lonely guy who is scorned by his mum, invisible to his colleagues at work, and the girl of his dreams (Mia Waikowska) simply ignores him. Things get worse when a new guy starts work at the same company. The spitting image of Simon, James is the complete opposite when it comes to personality: he's confident, charismatic, and has the knack for attracting women. Soon, Simon discovers, to his horror, that James is slowly taking over his life.

Ayoade on point with second effort.

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: An oddball darling at the Toronto Film Festival in September, The Double checked in at Sundance for a confidence boost on its way to a wide theatrical release this year. Director Richard Ayoade (Submarine) takes as his source material a Fyodor Dostoevsky novella about a shy office worker (here played by Jesse Eisenberg) driven mad by the arrival in his life of a devilish doppelganger (also Eisenberg). Those unfamiliar with the Dostoevsky might be reminded of the more recent Youth in Revolt, in which sometime Eisenberg doppelganger Michael Cera plays a shy young man who invents a troublemaking alter ego in order to attract the girl of his dreams.

Eisenberg appears at home in Ayoade’s fractured, grey-scale world

In The Double that girl is played by Mia Wasikowska, Eisenberg’s co-worker at a spectacularly dank office facility run by Wallace Shawn but headed by 'The Colonel," a figurehead out of David Lynch. Lynch and Terry Gilliam appear to be two of Ayoade’s touchstones for The Double, which plays an atmosphere of dream-like portent against a darkly expressionistic, atonal score. The description should give you a sense of your tolerance for The Double, whose spell of highly crafted alienation and morbid humour fades before the film does.

The cramped, oddly analog world of The Double feels like a kind of future-past: as in a film like Wristcutters: A Love Story, which depicted the afterworld as a slightly shittier version of this one, here characters negotiate a maladapted landscape plagued by loneliness and miscommunication. Eisenberg splits his arrogant boychik persona in two for the parts of Simon James and James Simon, the former 'a bit of a non-person," the latter the kind of guy who says things like 'I would tear the asshole off an elephant for a piece of trim I wanted that much" (and is beloved by all anyway).

Eisenberg appears at home in Ayoade’s fractured, grey-scale world, and his performance benefits from the purgative quality of watching a young actor literally divided against himself. Eisenberg launched a career playing the likes of both sweet, yearning Simon James (Roger Dodger, Adventureland) and hardened, callow James Simon (The Squid and the Whale, The Social Network, Now You See Me), but few characters that fall in between. As youth shears away from his cheekbones and brow, Eisenberg is poised to step into that middle space. The Double expedites that process with a kind of mordant cage match that finds Eisenberg playing both of his familiar types with more than usual conviction.

The refusal of all the characters, but especially Wasikowska, to acknowledge the resemblance between the two Eisenbergs furthers Simon’s nightmare, and the struggle between the two men for domain takes up the rest of the film. Cameos from Sally Hawkins, Chris O’Dowd, and Paddy Considine add sketch-like energy to a scheme that is onerous by design. In his second film, Ayoade’s risks (and a wonderfully game cast) suggest a gratifyingly unique sensibility, as playful as it is unsettling. He adds sideways humour to Dostoevsky’s tragedy, sustaining a level of grim tension that’s well crafted, if often tough to sit through.

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1 hour 33 min