At its core, The Double is a story about learning to stand up for yourself. Yes, we know, we’ve all heard that before. “Find your voice!” “Make waves!” “Make people notice you!” It is, after all, the sort of theme you see in any number of young adult films or teen-centered flicks these days. But The Double is not another teen movie; it is something much different.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a pathetic milquetoast whom nobody notices. He works in a dead-end job at an office doing data entry, security forces him to sign in as a visitor every day despite his having worked there for seven years, and his boss calls him Stanley. One of his co-workers at one point describes him as “a bit of a non-person.” He reminds you of Milton from Office Space, only he speaks less and somehow has even less backbone.
Assaulted by a crippling inability to be anything but socially awkward, Simon makes sad attempts to insert himself into the life of Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), one of his co-workers. He spies on her from his apartment building, rummages through her trash, sees her on the subway, and even goes to her office to have her make a photocopy for him, but he never has anything to say. He is, in short, lonely to the Nth degree and without any realistic hope of becoming anything more than what he already is.
Enter James Simon. James comes to work at the same company Simon does and he is an instant hit with everyone. The women get all aflutter, the boss loves his work and his attitude, security even knows his name. He is confident, talks a mile a minute and seems to have an answer for every situation. James is everything Simon wants to be. The catch? James looks exactly like Simon, but no one else seems to notice it.
What follows is a tense exploration of one’s self when faced with the physical manifestation of who you wish you could be versus the reality of who you are. James may be exciting, wild, and free — everything that Simon is not — but his reckless, careless behavior is also destructive. As James starts to take over Simon’s life, Simon is forced to consider taking drastic measures to reclaim his life, but then the question becomes, what does he really have left to claim? And this question is at the heart of Simon’s quest to discover and accept who he really is. Is he Simon the milquetoast? Is he James the daring? Is he a little of both? Is one better than the other, or are they meant to be two sides of the same coin?
Director Richard Ayoade does a commendable job of ratcheting up the tension with quick pacing and 90 minutes worth of dark, dank shots that look like they came from the same set as Alex Proya’s brilliant Dark City. Adding to the bizarre set-up is the fact that the company Simon works for is located in a decrepit basement with ’80s-era computers and ghastly TV ads, and the film is populated with gun-toting, assisted-living providers and wise-cracking policemen who only cover suicides.
Eisenberg hits his marks throughout. James is the prototypical Eisenberg character: charming, quick with his words, and always several steps ahead of everyone else. He plays this role with practiced aplomb. But it is his performance as Simon which garners more attention simply because we have never seen Eisenberg play someone so unsure, hopeless, and lost for words. In one scene, when Simon palpably describes the depth of his loneliness to James, you almost want to shed a tear. Eisenberg makes you want to hug Simon for how much of a loser he is.
Wasikowska is serviceable in her role as an emotionally fragile woman, though she is not given a ton to do. She goes on a couple of foul-mouthed rants which seem particularly cathartic for her, and in a couple of sequences she and Simon talk over each other in a rather comical way, but we don’t have much more than Simon’s own words to prove she is as lonely as Simon believes she is. A deeper exploration of her background would have gone a long way towards making Hannah seem more three dimensional.
The Double deftly explores the notion of what it means to be human, whether or not the proverbial grass really is greener on the other side, and even throws in some biting social commentary about whether or not office life is any sort of life at all. Eisenberg brings all the gravitas and wit that are necessary to make Simon and James work so excellently as foils, and this, combined with Ayoede’s skillful directing, makes The Double a very effective thriller.