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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The comedy The Double pits Jesse Eisenberg against…Jesse Eisenberg

Illustration for article titled The comedy The Double pits Jesse Eisenberg against…Jesse Eisenberg

As an actor, Jesse Eisenberg specializes in two kinds of social awkwardness. On one hand, he proved an ideal vessel for the fumbling, self-doubting adolescents of The Squid And The Whale and Adventureland. On the other, he’s successfully tapped into a more threatening strain of introversion, embodying the sociopathic villains of The Social Network and Kelly Reichardt’s upcoming Night MovesThe Double has the wit to take advantage of both modes, casting Eisenberg in a dual role in which his menacing side goes toe-to-toe with his inner nebbish.

A loose, sci-fi-inflected riff on Dostoevsky’s novella, Richard Ayoade’s sophomore fiction feature seems just as inspired by the tongue-in-cheek dystopias of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka—in the artifice of its set design, in its color-coded imagery, in its relentlessly mechanized scenery. (No door or elevator ever fails to shut in the beleaguered protagonist’s face.) Eisenberg stars as both a wimpy analytics expert named Simon James and his confident opposite, James Simon, who takes a job at the same company and proceeds to steal his thunder both professionally and romantically. At first, the doppelgänger plays life coach, helping Simon to woo an officemate (Mia Wasikowska) who works in the photocopy room. But J.S.’s intentions are clearly more sinister, starting from his insistence that Simon take an exam in his stead.

Ayoade shows a deft hand with art direction and rhythm, and there’s some fun to be had in the recurring gag that no one seems to notice the men’s physical similarity, least of all their officious boss (Wallace Shawn). One-note and light on profundity, the film charms mainly as an acting exercise, when Bad Eisenberg argues with a waitress (Cathy Moriarty) who refuses to give him the order he wants, or when the nemeses have a heart-to-heart in a subway car, framed in perfectly symmetrical shots. Judicious editing helps to maintain the illusion of two actors, though the quick-speaking Wasikowska, as the twins’ flighty, mercurial object of desire, in some ways has the subtlest task—and often steals scenes from her co-star(s).