Of all the entries in NPR’s 2013 series “Movies I’ve Seen a Million Times,” Jesse Eisenberg’s is the most bizarre. When asked about a movie he could watch over and over again, this actor casually noted that he “never watches movies. I haven’t seen a movie in, like, ten years.” You’d think an actor as impressive and promising as him – he astonished in his 2002 feature debut, Roger Dodger and has kept his footing since – would be interested in his craft. But, after all, he is the artist and in this game, it’s tricky to question the methods in lieu of the results. The film Eisenberg discussed as a favorite is 2010’s Submarine, one sent to him by the comedian/actor-filmmaker behind the film, Richard Ayoade, to gather interest in starring in his new project, The Double. The actor’s lack of viewing may have left room for impression, as their collaboration is a forced walk on well-tread grounds.
I’d imagine that all storytellers have tried, or would like to try, their hands at a Kafka pastiche, to delight in the absurdist minimalism that critiques bureaucracy in any “modern age,” with evidence of the story collection Kafka Americana by Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz, Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956; his only humorless film, with Henry Fonda), Woody Allen’s 1991 expressionist tribute Shadows and Fog, and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (also 1991) – a batch offering mixed results. Ayoade opted to adapt (with Avi Korine) Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella, source material that predates Kafka’s work but contains the traits later writers would make into the Kafka Brand. Liveliest on the page, Dostoyevsky’s narrative and dialog call for expertise from the filmmakers, who can’t muster more than a novice exercise.
Eisenberg plays Simon James, a worker whose life is molded by the turnstile-like devices he moves through daily. Working at a corporation that processes data (like several other elements surprising only to those ignorant to Kafka), Simon receives commands from a flat Wallace Shawn portrayal of a boss who, in turn, serves someone called the Colonel (in the writer’s milieu, fascism is just around the bend). Simon’s motivation shows in the first scene: Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), an office coworker, appears like a dream in an adjoining subway car. Wasikowska, with her post-Wonka innocence (though Stoker and Only Lovers Left Alive show her aiming for more), holds a strange presence in the film – somewhere between unsettling and distracting.
When the title presence shows up, named James Simon (in a second role for Eisenberg), the actor finds himself in a more comfortable role. The doppelganger James, in spirit of the source novella (though not faithful), becomes everything Simon wishes he could be – essentially, protected wish fulfillment so prominent that it drives our principal role to extreme ends. While not the originating the conceit – many cite Poe’s “William Wilson” as introducing it to fiction – Dostoyevsky’s tale brings a unique psychology to a character whose environment constantly reminds him of his lacking. Now famous for playing Mark Zuckerberg, Eisenberg has revealed his ease in depicting arrogance and social awkwardness that, as possibly a result of functioning “high” on the autism scale, reads as sympathetic. The Double shows the actor, as Simon, failing to embrace weakness (frailty in character is challenging, especially in black comedy). Simon’s double allows Eisenberg to play to his strengths, James’ rapid dialog like menace coming as fast as his mind can articulate it: the most devastating revelation about Simon’s inner turmoil. The second Jesse brings energy to an uneven film. We can’t help but wonder if Eisenberg, for a while in competition with the younger Michael Cera for roles as the chic-geek, signed on to chase that actor’s ignored success in 2009’s Youth in Revolt. Here Cera, also in dual roles, captures the dweeb and that character’s inner suaveness. Such speculation is dangerous, I’ll admit – but boredom in a “Kafkaeqse” universe is far worse.
While Ayoade’s compositions appeal – especially his sensibility for visual planes within chiaroscuro – the cinematography can’t offer a moody texture. A bleak world like this relies on the images to make uncanny and subjective intrusions plausible. Erik Wilson’s digital camera remains too sharp and actual, revealing its notable cast trapped in some kind of loco sideshow. Ayoade struggles to unify other elements: the soundtrack fails to blend epic orchestration with late 70s/80s synthesizer kitsch, and a septuagenarian band doing 60s moody pop is a stumble to ape Lynch. The sound mix leaves effects jarring in an already clunky edit. An oddity, for sure: with established performers in a neophyte work, it’s odd for all the wrong reasons.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International. He teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012).