Double Eisenbergs 2

By Matthew Sorrento.

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.

Double SubwayI’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.

Double MiaWhen 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).

10 thoughts on “Double Eisenbergs Spell Trouble”

  1. I must admit that I am absolutely – absolutely – immune to Jesse Eisenberg’s appeal to any audience; from The Squid and The Whale, in which he played a creep, to The Social Network, in which he played a creep, to Zombieland, in which he played a clueless creep, his range seems deeply limited.

    But then again, The Double is much the same – deeply limited, and as you note, indebted to Poe’s William Wilson, but also, I would suggest, to Basil Dearden’s The Man Who Haunted Himself – a deeply neglected film by a first rate artist whose reputation has somehow vanished in recent years, while his compatriot Joseph Losey’s work has — absolutely justly — gathered additional acclaim.

    But Dearden should not be overlooked, nor should his film, nor Louis Malle’s superb version of William Wilson in the three part omnibus film Spirits of the Dead – so it’s clear, at least to me, that The Double is the least of all these films, and absolutely “odd for all the wrong reasons.”

  2. I agree! Jesse Eisenberg is a bizarre fellow, and his work does tend to follow suit. However, I do appreciate his role here as Simon James. It was somehow both mesmerizing and unappealing at the same time.

  3. Interesting points, Wheeler — in The Squid and the Whale I saw his role as a victim of a creepy father, similar to his place under a seamy mentor in Rodger Dodger. But I agree that Eisenberg’s appeal is questionable, a central problem in The Double. (By the way, I learned while doing research for this piece that he was raised in East Brunswick — close to both of our original stomping grounds, Wheeler!)

    Interesting to hear that the film works for you, Annie Marie — just to clarify, was Simon’s alter ego the more appealing aspect for you?

  4. I am with Wheeler on this one. I cannot for the life of me explain the success of Jesse Eisenberg.

    You know how there are certain actors that just bug you? You no doubt have a few of them. Everybody has a list of a handful of actors whom they try to avoid. It is a funny thing that few recognize or admit, but all critics have a few actors whom they try to avoid.

    For example, I appear to be the only person who thinks very little of the acting of Cate Blanchett (she over-acts in my opinion) and (prepare for a SHOCK) I also think Bryan Cranston is a terribly wooden actor. I am waiting for people to notice this …meanwhile I will probably get slapped dpown for saying anything remotely negative about Cranston. ha ha. it is a bit funny and crazy.

    People are shocked by these highly subjective and personal opinions, but then they offer up examples of certain actors that THEY dislike….and I am sometimes shocked by their ‘list’ of over-rated actors….It is a funny thing and would make an interesting survey. For example, I love Pre-Code films, but I think Norma Shearer is a scenery muncher ….but Shearer has her adherents…and hardcore fans..

    I find this fascinating. Not so much that we have totally personal likes and dislikes, but that nobody ever talks about this in a serious manner.

    Eisenberg represents a certain type of male dweeb fantasy in so many bromances and films in which the geek gets the impossibly smart and fantastic girl who settles for the oft-infantile geek (which bugs me of course) but I really never thought much of his acting.

    He does play a pretty good RAT though! I figure he will always be a working actor because he can play a heavy.


  5. Jesse Eisenberg is someone who I always found interesting. I didn’t know that he never watched movies again. You’d think quite the opposite for an actor.

  6. Can you give more information on Mia Wasikowska’s “Wonka” experience? Perhaps the writer was confusing Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland”? Miss Wasikowska was in “Alice” but not in “Charlie”

    As far as this film goes, I had a hard time watching it because I empathized so much with Simon that I had to stop watching for a bit. I also think the pacing could have been faster but the movie, coming in at 93 minutes, was already short.

  7. Jon, I’d hate to have Fight Club represent all doppelganger stories, but as one who teaches undergraduate film studies, I know it’s a reference point for many.

    Thank you for clarifying, Clayton — I stand corrected, having blurred Burton’s lackluster adaptations together — though I’ll note that they are hardly worth distinguishing at this point. I agree that the pacing of the film is a problem, adding to its less-than-appealing tone.

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