Thursday, May 22, 2014

Two-Faced: Jesse Eisenberg in The Double

Jesse Eisenberg in The Double

As a rule, boyish young actors who achieve stardom in lead roles that call for them to be brainy, neurotic (or at least social maladjusted), physically unimposing, and foot-shuffling awkward with women either toughen up and acquire some grit as they get older (like Dustin Hoffman) or shift into supporting and character roles (like Anthony Perkins and Matthew Broderick). What’s fascinating about Jesse Eisenberg, aside from the fact that he’s a fine actor, is the way he updates the bookish-male-virgin roles of yesteryear, in a way that makes them strikingly contemporary. Eisenberg was pretty much in the conventional Brandon DeWilde mold, albeit smarter and hornier, in his first picture, Roger Dodger (2002), where the suspense hook was whether his ill-chosen mentor, a misogynistic skirt-chaser played by Campbell Scott, would in succeed in infecting the sweet kid with his demons and turn him into a heartless, lying serial humper, like himself. But since then, Eisenberg’s characters have largely continued to be clumsily innocent about romantic and sexual relationships, while being wised up about everything else.

In The Graduate, Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, was socially inept in a way that audiences of that time took as a species of purity. Benjamin didn’t want to grow up and join society, because that would mean becoming a coarse-souled sellout. As the director’s autobiographical stand-in in The Squid and the Whale and the founder of Facebook in The Social Network and other roles, Eisenberg has no such compunctions about using his talents to acquire success and power and wealth. After all, in the post-industrial age, his are the kind of talents that matter, so success and power and wealth are his for the taking. But he’s still not the first person every woman in the room notices, and the enemies that his Mark Zuckerberg has the most disdain for, the Winkelvoss twins, have all the natural assets he’s had to scramble for, or will have to do without: they were born rich, are athletic and strong and strikingly handsome, and, as one of them points out, “There are two of me.”

They could pound him into sand, but won’t, because they’d rather have money, and can only peel some off him by dragging him through a legal process that is also run by a bunch of nerds. Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg has a seething mean streak that he expresses through eruptions of cheap sarcasm; if these do nothing to endear him to the people who will decide whether he gives the Winklevi bupkis, he’s rich enough to figure that the cost is worth it. Instead of the traditional smart victim who gets the girl, he’s the nerd as sore winner, and the perfect hero for a time when billionaires still feel bad about not having had a date to the prom and have no shame about publicly comparing people who complain about their ability to buy political power to keep their tax rates low to the Nazis. However the next Superman movie turns out, casting Eisenberg as Lex Luthor will likely go down as the smartest thing Zack Snyder ever does.

Eisenberg stars in the new black comedy The Double, and it’s a delicious piece of casting, enabling him to make himself the butt of his own passive-aggressive viciousness. He plays the hero, Simon James, a meek paper pusher in a hellish bureaucratic office that’s run by that most inexplicably terrifying of petty dictators, Wallace Shawn. Simon pines for a co-worker, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), but doesn’t know what to do about it, besides fantasize that they’re soul mates because she’s probably as “lost and lonely and invisible” as he is. For her part, she sees him as being so far from sexually threatening that, when she learns that he uses a telescope to watch her when she’s at home, she says that finds the news “kind of reassuring, in a strange way.” (At one point, he blurts out, “I bought you a present, but I decided that it was inappropriate,” hoping that she’ll give him credit for both the impulse and having the restraint not to cross the line between them.)

Eisenberg also plays the title character, James Simon, the new guy in the office who is everything Simon isn’t—self-confident, assertive, sexually aggressive and magnetic, and uninterested in holding his end up at work—even though the two of them look exactly the same. (They’re even identically dressed.) Only Simon and James recognize that they look alike, simply because nobody has ever looked closely enough at Simon to process what he looks like. (When a co-worker, plated by Noah Taylor, is forced to really do so, he shrugs: “You look just like him,” he tells Simon. “And you’re not even Chinese. It’s pretty fucked up.”) Inevitably, Hannah confides to Simon, the safe guy, that she finds the new guy… intriguing. She’s barely met him and can’t quite put her finger on what makes him so appealing, but “he has something.” Exasperated and with his heart in pieces, Simon asks how she can possibly know even that about him, “Sometimes,” she says, “you can tell just by looking at someone.”

The Double, which is credited as being from a story by Avi Korine based on the Dostoyevsky story, was directed by Richard Ayoade. (He and Korine share credit on the screenplay.) Ayoade, whose face is familiar to fans of British TV comedy from his roles on The IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, made his Hollywood debut a couple of years ago in the disastrous sci-fi comedy The Watch; two years before that, he made his feature directing debut with the coming-of-age comedy Submarine. So far, his prospects as a director are looking a lot better than his prospects as a Hollywood actor. He likes quirky visual effects—the world of this movie seems to be unevenly fluorescently lit, with pools of green and yellow and red light surrounded by overall blackness—but, coming from a performing background himself, he doesn’t turn the actors into painted dolls, the way Wes Anderson does. (The presence of Chris O’Dowd, who also starred in The IT Crowd, and Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, and Gemma Chan, all of whom appeared in Submarine, gives the movie rather a homey feeling.)

The Double doesn’t feel especially Dostoyevskian, but it does call to mind several other movies—especially Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, Orson Welles’ The Trial, and even, in a surreal nocturnal interlude in a graveyard, Michele Soavi’s ghoulish splatter comedy Cemetery Man. (I also caught a whiff of another oddball classic-lit adaptation, Jonathan Parker’s Bartleby, based on the Herman Melville story, with David Paymer and Crispin Glover.) I can’t say that I minded the referential, second-hand nature of the movie very much. By now, the “who was that doppelganger I saw you with last night?” story is a fairly well-worn genre—The Double has opened in time to compete with movies in which Jake Gyllenhaal and Kermit the Frog have to fight their own lookalikes for possession of their identities—and it’s better to have one from a director who knows that and who has interesting taste in steals than from one who’s under the delusion that he’s working on the cutting edge of the avant-garde. Writing in the New York Times, A. O. Scott has dismissed The Double as “a brainteaser rather than a mindblower.” People who’ve gotten used to movies that either insult their brains or ignore them completely may find that seeing a movie that pleasingly teases them can make for an enjoyable change of pace.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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