Identity and our ability to control our own is very much in the zeitgeist, which goes a long way in explaining why there are two current films built around the confused search for identity, both adaptations of novels titled "The Double."
The muddled puzzle of "Enemy" has a college professor (Jake Gyllenhaal) stalking, and then being confronted by a man who seems to be an alternate version of himself. It's based on a book by Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago. "The Double," the classic take on this question of identity and the madness that obsessing about it too much can reveal, was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and is the basis of a cerebral thriller starring Jesse Eisenberg.
For all of both films' surreal touches and stylistic flourishes, "The Double" is the one that makes more sense.
Eisenberg plays a clerk trapped in a gloomy corporation. Simon is the sort of nobody that nobody notices -- pushed around, bullied.
"How long you been here, son?" the boss (Wallace Shawn) wants to know. "Just started, eh?"
"Yes sir. Seven years."
Even the sliding doors, omnipresent in this retro-future of adding machines, cathode ray tube computer screens and permanently dim lighting, torment Simon. He's living in a world where nobody knows his name.
Not even the lovely Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who runs the photocopying room, gives him a thought. But he thinks about her. She puts a spring in his step, even as he spies on her in her apartment with his spotting scope, puzzling over the torn bits of bloody paper left over from the drawings she makes by pricking her fingers.
Then the unnoticed Simon is confronted with the very noticeable James (also Eisenberg). He is confident where Simon is tentative. James is aggressive where Simon is nebbishy. Simon would be the only person who realizes they look exactly alike, but James does, too. The more assertive James begins to offer life, love and dating advice to Simon. But Simon, and we, suspect James of more sinister motives.
"This is NOT me!" Simon protests. But no one listens.
Richard Ayoade, who directed the dark and dense teen romance "Submarine," concentrates on externals here. "The Double" looks like science fiction, a "Dark City" built around a Kafkaesque nightmare of a Dostoevsky story. Ayoade's background means he plays up the humor inherent in this scenario, at least partly through casting. Shawn is perfect as a grating boob of a boss. Sally Hawkins makes a dry, contemptuous receptionist, one of many who refuse to acknowledge that Simon exists.
But Eisenberg, perfectly, pliably put upon, is the engine that drives this picture. Simon's inept longing for Hannah, for human connection of any sort, shows in his hurt eyes. And Eisenberg is just as convincing as James, whose cocky patter and arrogance seem a natural extension of Eisenberg's turn in "The Social Network." One guy we fear for, the other we fear.
It's not a great or a deep take on identity, or even that novel as a concept. Dostoevsky wrote "The Double" in 1846, and the timeless theme is mostly what resonates here, not the much imitated sense of future past that Ayoade & co. borrow (see "Brazil"). But as with "Enemy," what's worth the price of admission is the acting exercise, the subtle wonders of seeing a great talent create two versions of the same man with just downcast eyes, stooped shoulders and a difference in walks -- one confident, conniving, the other hesitant, just waiting for that next hurt and humiliation.
Rating: R (for language)
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, James Fox, Sally Hawkins
Director and screenwriter: Richard Ayoade
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes