Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is the hardest working employee at an unnamed retro-futuristic company that will remind most watching it of Brazil, probably because it looks a lot like Brazil. I can’t remember if it’s ever said exactly what the people do here, but it looks like a representation of the future that came from 1950. Given that the book upon which The Double is based, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was written in in the mid-1800s, that’s quite an accomplishment. It’s never said when exactly the film is set, but it’s in some sort of parallel universe.
Simon is a lonely, lonely individual. He doesn’t have any friends, goes completely unnoticed at work — despite staying later than anyone else and having grand ideas to improve the company — and spends his nights gazing at the building across from his, where Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) lives. She’s also his co-worker. He’s too shy and unassertive to say anything to her, even though he’s seemingly fallen for her. One night, while staring at her apartment, he notices a man staring back at him from the apartment above hers. But he’s on the outside. He waves and jumps, committing suicide. “Okay. We’re in for an odd movie.”
It gets weirder. A little while later, James Simon (also Eisenberg) appears at Simon’s workplace. Nobody even notices that they look identical. James is everything that Simon isn’t. He’s confident, suave, and not in the least bit good at his job. But he fools people into thinking he is, simply by being assertive. You can probably see where the film is going at this point, but it’s very much worth sitting through anyway.
Part of the reason it’s worth it is because the film isn’t solely interested in just these two characters being opposites, or what they can learn from one another. It has a protagonist, and that’s Simon. As soon as James shows up, Simon tries to learn from the more confident man. But that doesn’t go as planned, and soon enough Simon has to figure out what he’s going to do about the situation. It’s here how he grows and develops as a character, and it’s a fascinating transformation to watch unfold.
Most sites on the internet list The Double as a comedy. If it is one, it’s a very, very dark comedy. Its sense of humor is pitch-black, and revolves around topics like suicide and hopelessness. If you can’t find the comedy in it, this is going to come across as a bleak film. Well, it is a bleak film. It’s just that sometimes we need to laugh about, or with, that bleakness. And also maybe shed a tear if you happen to notice parallels to Simon’s life in your own. Ahem!
It’s not that The Double doesn’t revel in its bleakness, either, though. It has an intriguing cinematographic style that plays heavily with light and shadow, and looks unlike the vast majority of films you’ll ever see. It’s a dark film in both its composition and its content. It’s hard to walk away from it happy. It’s often a difficult watch. Its comedic moments help, but they don’t exactly allow it to be easy to sit through or digest.
Speaking of digestion, I have a feeling that the film’s ending — or, final few scenes — are going to cause some people confusion, and will probably prompt a good deal of discussion among those who see The Double (which is hopefully a lot of people). It’s far more straightforward than 2014’s other doppelganger film, Enemy, whose ending might be fully explainable. The Double, conversely, might have multiple interpretations, but it doesn’t have a “come out of (seemingly) nowhere” moment that adds doubt to its conclusion. People should be able to work through it. It leaves you with questions, but I think it does contain all the solutions.
Like Enemy, though, a great deal of the film’s success comes down to the lead performance. It doesn’t matter how strong the film’s style is, or how great its themes or content are, if the lead performance falters. Jesse Eisenberg shows tremendous range in the dual roles. He’s incredibly believable both as the shy and lonely Simon, as well as the confident and assertive James. The performance could make or break the film, and because Eisenberg is so good, it winds up doing the former.
Does The Double have any problems? Many of the secondary characters feel like they are wasted. Mia Wasikowska is reduced primarily to an uninteresting love interest, for example. This makes sense, given that the film’s central focus is on Simon/James, but some of the secondary characters are distracting, given who plays them. You’ve got scene-long cameos from actors like Sally Hawkins, Chris O’Dowd, Rade Sherbedgia, and James Fox, among others, and it takes away from the film instead of adding to it. Yes, I’m being petty. I need something to complain about.
The Double is a great movie, one which I intend on watching several times in order to completely figure it out. It has a strong style, interesting themes, a great lead performance by Jesse Eisenberg, and enough humor to keep its bleakness from being off-putting, even if it is dark, dark humor. That just matches its subject matter. This is one of those films that you need to see.