Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is rarely recognized and barely noticed. Simon says, “You’re in my place” to a guy on the subway early in Richard Ayoade’s The Double—a film which might as well take place entirely within a subway system, so stale and sunless is its meticulously constructed world—and you get to feeling that Simon probably says this several times a day. There is no place for Simon, but every day he goes to work, where his boss (Wallace Shawn) doesn’t appreciate him; to the diner, where the waitress doesn’t listen to him and anyway doesn't have anything he wants; to his miserable little room in a monolithic apartment block in some industrial wasteland, where he watches TV or uses binoculars to spy on a pretty girl (Mia Wasikowska) who, you guessed it, pays him no attention. Simon’s mom doesn’t even recognize him when he appears in a televised advert for “the Colonel,” the Big Brotherly figure who rules the company Simon works for, and maybe everything else in the insipid nightmare world Simon inhabits—a world that will soon be inhabited by James Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), Simon’s exact duplicate, except that he’s an asshole and everyone loves him.
Like Jake Gyllenhall’s character in Enemy, you might say that Simon almost needs a doppelgänger because as it is he’s barely a person. Unlike Gyllenhall, who is remarkably nuanced in Enemy—which you might think of as The Double’s smarter, more genuinely disquieting twin—Eisenberg conveys that lack of selfhood mainly through mincing and sundry annoying tics that affect ineffectuality. The arrival of his doppelgänger should come as a relief, but the truth is that James is simply arrogant, bullying and nearly as dull. The notion that he’s irresistible to women is a reminder that we are indeed in the realm of fantasy. But it isn't just a way with the ladies that gives James a one-up on Simon; James joins Simon’s company, steals Simon’s ideas and curries favour with the boss. He’s getting everything Simon wanted. Will Simon snap and try to take it from him?
If any of this seems familiar, you don’t know the half of it. The Double is based on Dostoyevski’s eponymous novella, but the cinematic forebears for its every detail of production design are myriad. Which is to say that The Double, with its labyrinthine Kafkaesque workplace, its noisy plumbing, bad wiring and semi-catatonic elderlies, is based on Brazil and Eraserhead as much as it is on The Double. Submarine, Ayoade’s first feature, leaned heavily on Wes Anderson and the French New Wave, so it’s no surprise that his second feature is brazen about its sources of inspiration. It’s just that the brazenness is stifling rather than freeing. Cinephiles could make a game of spotting quotations from other films, the company ball with a band on loan from Aki Kaurismäki or the many references to The Tenant. I find The Double as a whole admirable, airless and stiff, well-crafted, pedantic and mannered, eager to display its lovingly integrated citations. Life has been almost entirely sucked out of this deft pastiche, which, to be sure, is in keeping with its spin on the old story. So I won’t claim that The Double doesn’t succeed, only that what it succeeds at may not be something that’s either fun or profound.