'Enemy' is puzzling, times two

MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICEMarch 21, 2014 

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Hipster fight! Jake Gyllenhaal, left (or is it right?) argues with another dude about who gets the Treefort beard.

  • ENEMY ••

    Rated: R for some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon. Director: Denis Villeneuve. Running time: 90 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

Jake Gyllenhaal does tour de force double duty in the intimate thriller "Enemy," a cryptic essay on identity.

He is terrific in both guises, but he is trapped in a frustrating puzzle without a solution.

"Enemy" is a fever-dream fantasy about a rumpled college professor with perhaps a taste for the kinky who discovers that he has an exact double - a bit player actor has the same voice, is wearing the same beard and has the same scars.

Professor Adam Bell drives his professorial Volvo home to a lovely blond (Melanie Laurent), his girlfriend. Antsy actor Anthony Claire takes his motorcycle home to his blond wife (Sarah Gadon), who doesn't trust him.

Adam is semimindlessly going through his days, repeating the same anecdotes to class after class of bored Canadian college kids (this is set in Toronto). He seems depressed, in between rolls in the sack with Mary, a relationship sketched in tentative, empty strokes. Something's missing, which might explain his opening scene visit to a twisted voyeur's club of men watching naked women do things to spiders.

Spiders? That's no help. Nor is the opening tease _ "Chaos is order yet undefined."

What is helpful is realizing this is based on a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, whose "Blindness" was also cryptic, and something of an essay on human connection and how depriving a city's residents of a single sense causes social breakdown.

A colleague suggests a movie to Adam, and in it, he spies a bellhop, played by a struggling actor who is a dead ringer for himself. Adam, with more energy than he brings to the rest of his life, methodically tracks down Anthony and nervously angles for a meeting. But not without upsetting Anthony and his very confused, very pregnant wife.

With identity and how we cling to it occupying center stage in this linked-in / identity thieving/NSA-monitored world, it's no surprise that this lesser novel by Saramago would merit an adaptation by Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian director of "Incendies" and last fall's "Prisoners." It's also not surprising that this isn't the only identity-obsessed doppelganger piece to come out this spring, with Jesse Eisenberg seeing double in the dark comedy "The Double."

But while it's an idea on the tip of the zeitgeist and this film is layered in creepy, calamitous dread, it's hard to say that Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullon got a handle on anything resembling a point.

It's David Lynch-lite, a 90-minute puzzle that might be decode-able by those willing to parse its clues obsessively.

On a single viewing, though, we have Gyllenhaal's simple but immaculate separation of the characters, and the time to wonder if it's all just one man's nightmare about the life he's settled into. With spiders.

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