With an aptness that may even be intentional, “The Double” feels both over-familiar and oddly new. It’s safe to call it a Kafka-esque tale, even though the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel from which the movie is adapted was written in 1846. The heavily stylized sets, lighting, and camerawork feel as old as German Expressionism and as recent as Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” The industrial noise on the soundtrack indicates we’re just one universe over from David Lynch’s. And there’s Orwell, obviously.
That said, no one has thought to make a nightmare of paranoid bureaucratic alienation for quite some time now — as proved by movies like “Office Space” and shows like “The Office,” we prefer to laugh at our shackles rather than shudder. Richard Ayoade, a British comic actor who turned director with the fluky coming-of-age story “Submarine” (2010), announces his ambition with this second feature, which takes place in a dismal parallel world that would look a lot like ours if it were better lit.
Ayoade’s lucky to have not one Jesse Eisenberg but two: the passive-aggressive Eisenberg of movies like “The Squid and the Whale” and the aggressive-aggressive one of “The Social Network.” The first plays Simon James, a meek functionary who lives in a surreal and soul-crushing urban wasteland and works as a clerk for a rundown corporation. The second Eisenberg plays James Simon, a mirror image of the clerk, who appears at the office one day and swaggers with all the manipulative chutzpah the other man lacks.
Both characters are played by one actor, of course, but such is the state of digital effects and so finely, fiendishly tuned are Eisenberg’s twinned performances that it’s as if id and superego were vying for supremacy in physical form. The conversations between the two are the best scenes in the movie and a showcase for the actor’s brittle gifts.
Simon pines for Hannah (a waifish Mia Wasikowska) and spies on her from his apartment across the way. Hannah, not unexpectedly, falls for bad boy James. There’s the faintest suggestion that the two men might be opposite sides of the same psyche, Tyler Durden-style, but Ayoade seems content to attend to his production values rather than lead viewers to a place of clear and terrible understanding.
Those production values can be mesmerizing. “The Double” unfolds in an underground city where daylight never penetrates; Dostoyevsky would feel right at home. The prevailing colors are queasy yellows and mordant blues, and the chilly classical runs on the soundtrack hurtle the hero and his malevolent double from one scene to the next. Familiar faces loom in from the corners: Wallace Shawn as Simon’s maddeningly dense boss, James Fox as the ancient company founder, an unrecognizable Cathy Moriarty (“Raging Bull”) as a diner waitress.
The movie burrows under fears of identity loss and existential despair in the cogs of modern society; at one point, Simon is called into the front office and informed that he is no longer in the company’s data files and therefore no longer exists. Does a ghost have more freedom than a living man? “The Double” nibbles at that conundrum before tying itself in knots for a finale that makes more impact than sense.
It’s a noble try, but the problem is that Ayoade’s modern hell feels so. . . 20th century. The themes and visual ideas that sustain the Kafka/Orwell/Gilliam dystopian vision — the nightmare bureaucracies that imprison us — have become outdated in a world where we’re liberated yet enslaved by our consumer technology, personally empowered for maximum self-expression yet, more than ever, tiny widgets at the mercy of forces that watch us and re-sell us. “The Double” is a striking piece of work, but it’s nostalgic for a kind of paranoia that may no longer exist. There are different things to frighten us now. Maybe Richard Ayoade should start making movies about them.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.