The Double opens with a look at lead Jesse Eisenberg’s monotonous, solitary life. He takes the train to his job, where he’s worked for seven years and only one person has bothered to learn his name, he’s got a crush on a girl (Mia Wasikowska) at work who doesn’t seem to know he exists, and he takes care of his mother (Phyllis Somerville) in her retirement home, suffering her constant berating. Eisenberg’s meek, in a too big suit, apprehensive and nervous about everything, starting with two altercations on the train—where he watches Wasikowska (in the next car) try to find some momentary relief from her own monotonous, solitary life—and even when Eisenberg’s got a great idea at work, he can’t get boss Wallace Shawn to listen.
Everything changes when Eisenberg finally gets up the courage to ask Wasikowska to hang out; they’ve just gone through a traumatic event: Eisenberg saw Wasikowska’s neighbor jump off their building. Eisenberg’s trying to process seeing it, along with cops Jon Korkes and Craig Roberts’s peculiar questioning—they’re the local suicide cops, just for the neighborhood, as suicide is so common, which surprises Eisenberg. Meanwhile, Wasikowska turns out to have history with the dead man. She and Eisenberg talk through it at a local diner (Cathy Moriarty is fantastic as the rude waitress).
As Eisenberg finally starts getting the courage to pursue a relationship with Wasikowska, initially leading to more disappointments and failures, he quickly gets derailed by the appearance of a new coworker. Who just happens to look exactly like him (also, obviously, Eisenberg). Where the first Eisenberg is a terrified introvert, the second one is the opposite, a charming extrovert who’s able to ingratiate himself with all the people who don’t like the original model—not just boss Shawn, but even waitress Moriarty. The first Eisenberg quickly starts looking up to his double, inspired by the seemingly boundless confidence in the exact same physical model.
Making the two Eisenbergs pals so quickly and so well is one of the best moves in director Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine’s script (based on a Dostoevsky novella); the film’s always got an uncanny tone, with Ayoade—with help from the crew, more on them in a bit—shifting that focus from the setting to the first Eisenberg’s investigation of the second, then to their friendship, and finally to exploring their unique relationship (after the dissolution of said friendship).
See, when the second Eisenberg, an accomplished womanizer, sets his sights on Wasikowska, things get serious for everyone involved leading to a series of harrowing events for the first Eisenberg, as he watches the world he already has no control over or say in slip away even more.
The film runs ninety taut minutes, with exquisite editing courtesy Chris Dickens and Nick Fenton, never giving the viewer or Eisenberg a chance to relax. Even during the most mundane and humorous sequences, The Double is ever anxious, ever discomforting.
While the whole film revolves around Eisenberg (and Eisenberg) and his performances are excellent, it’s a plum lead in a technically outstanding project. Ayoade and his crew—cinematographer Erik Wilson, editor Dickens and Fenton, music Andrew Hewitt, production designer David Crank, costume designer Jacqueline Durran—create a reality only ever seen through opaque lenses. Ayoade and Korine imply just enough in expository scenes to get the point across, then move on, but without ever overloading on the information.
Because work is rarely important, outside how it affects Eisenberg’s relationship with Wasikowska or boss’s daughter Yasmin Paige, who he’s supposed to be mentoring.
Wasikowska is good. She steps up when she needs to step up, after playing “The Girl” for the first half, and everyone else does fine. No one’s in it anywhere near as much as Eisenberg, obviously, but also Wasikowska. The supporting cast is memorable—with some fun cameos—and populates the background well.
The Double’s not entirely successful—the ending has a lot of momentum behind it and Ayoade’s trying not to get too literal but maybe he does get too literal or maybe he doesn’t get literal enough—but it more than accomplishes its rather high ambitions. Ayoade’s direction is quite spectacular, ditto the work of his crew. It’s a dreary, glorious hour and a half.