The Double: Toronto Review

Seriocomic parable places an accessible lead in an alienating world.

Richard Ayoade follows his directorial debut, "Submarine," with a Dostoyevsky adaptation starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska.

Reminding moviegoers that Franz Kafka didn't invent the "Kafkaesque" tale of modern alienation, Richard Ayoade's The Double looks to Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name to find a man so unable to live his life that a twin-like stranger has to show up to do it for him. A big shift from his coming-of-age debut film, Submarine, the heavily stylized film further demonstrates the actor's ability to create self-contained worlds behind the camera. This particular world will be too suffocating for some moviegoers, but Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska, in the lead roles, should attract enough attention to help the psychological parable find its audience.

VIDEO: Jesse Eisenberg Dishes on His Latest Co-Star (Himself)

The story takes place in a shadowed, soundstagey realm whose oppressive sound design often emits a Lynchian rumble. Here Simon James (Eisenberg) toils in an office whose other cubicle-dwellers are grey-haired lifers, working on data-processing systems for a boss known as The Colonel. (Those computer systems, like all technology here, belong to no specific time period but lean toward the early eighties; the characters in Terry Gilliam's Brazil would likely know how to work them, though David Crank's production design here is less flamboyant.)

In his own words, Simon is "permanently outside myself" and "incapable of doing what needs to be done." He longs for Hannah (Wasikowska), who works downstairs in the copy room and lives across the way from his apartment, but his efforts to catch her attention are futile. He barely registers on her consciousness and is completely unmemorable to the security guy at work, who demands two forms of ID every time Simon enters the building.

Simon is on the verge of taking bold action when he arrives at work to see James Simon, a new employee who within minutes has made more of an impression on Simon's supervisor (Wallace Shawn) than Simon has in years. No one acknowledges that Simon and James look exactly alike (Eisenberg, of course, plays both roles), perhaps because the latter's personality is so commanding: he tells jokes and schmoozes, steals credit for others' work and is good with women. When Hannah suddenly looks at Simon with enthusiasm, it's because she wants to find out what he knows about James.

The newcomer starts taking over what little parts of the world Simon can call his own, even arranging for ongoing access to his apartment so he can maintain affairs with multiple women. When his attempts to coach Simon into more assertive behavior fail, he shrugs and picks up what Simon cannot take for himself.

The cast is littered with well-placed cameos including Submarine's Sally Hawkins, Ayoade's old IT Crowd costar Chris O'Dowd, musician J Mascis, and -- most appropriately given the film's semicomic, skewed reality -- creepy-hilarious British satirist Christopher Morris. All play along with the heavily mannered style here, in which plenty of stale air hovers between lines of dialogue. The direction encourages us to read the film as a pure allegory instead of even bothering to ask if Simon might be suffering a real-world mental breakdown; as in Kafka, it's possible to be indignant about the misfortunes that befall a character without wondering how, for instance, he turned into a giant cockroach.

Tech values are all excellent and in tune with the overall package, right down to the fake sci-fi/adventure show that plays on TVs in the background -- its hero a constant reminder of the mundane obstacles Simon has such difficulty with.

Production Company: Alcove Entertainment

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, James Fox, Cathy Moriarty

Director: Richard Ayoade

Screenwriters: Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine

Producers: Robin C. Fox, Amina Dasmal

Executive producers: Michael Caine, Graeme Cox, Tessa Ross, Nigel Williams

Director of photography: Erik Alexander Wilson

Production designer: David Crank

Music: Andrew Hewitt

Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran

Editors: Nick Fenton, Chris Dickens

Sales: WME, Protagonist Pictures

No rating, 92 minutes