With an aptness that may even be intentional, “The Double” feels both over-familiar and oddly new. It's safe to call it a Kafka-esque tale, even though the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel from which the movie is adapted was written in 1846. The heavily stylized sets, lighting, and camerawork feel as old as German Expressionism and as recent as Terry Gilliam's “Brazil.” The industrial noise on the soundtrack indicates we're just one universe over from David Lynch's. And there's Orwell, obviously.
That said, no one has thought to make a nightmare of paranoid bureaucratic alienation for quite some time now — as proved by movies like “Office Space” and shows like “The Office,” we prefer to laugh at our shackles rather than shudder. Richard Ayoade, a British comic actor who turned director with the fluky coming-of-age story “Submarine” (2010), announces his ambition with this second feature, which takes place in a dismal parallel world that would look a lot like ours if it were better lit.
Ayoade's lucky to have not one Jesse Eisenberg but two: the passive-aggressive Eisenberg of movies like “The Squid and the Whale” and the aggressive-aggressive one of “The Social Network.” The first plays Simon James, a meek functionary who lives in a surreal and soul-crushing urban wasteland and works as a clerk for a rundown corporation. The second Eisenberg plays James Simon, a mirror image of the clerk, who appears at the office one day and swaggers with all the manipulative chutzpah the other man lacks.
Both characters are played by one actor, of course, but such is the state of digital effects and so finely, fiendishly tuned are Eisenberg's twinned performances that it's as if id and superego were vying for supremacy in physical form. The conversations between the two are the best scenes in the movie and a showcase for the actor's brittle gifts.