'The Double' remakes Dostoevsky with style



    ** 1/2

    Rated: R for language. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn. Director: Richard Ayoade. Running time: 93 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

The third in a string of movies released this year with a doppelganger theme, "The Double" neatly splits the difference between the stylish but unsatisfying arthouse thriller "Enemy" (which featured dueling Jake Gyllenhaals) and the more crowd-pleasing comedy "Muppets Most Wanted" (in which Kermit the Frog faced off against a criminal look-alike named Constantine).

Loosely inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1846 novella about a shy clerk and his manipulative double, the new film is part absurdist comedy and part tragedy, part love story and part existential allegory.

In the lead role, Jesse Eisenberg delivers a mesmerizing performance - two of them, really - as the timid Simon James and his spitting image, the coolly self-confident James Simon.

The story is simple. Simon, a nebbish nobody toiling in a "Brazil"-like cubicle farm, pines for his pretty co-worker, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), while trying to work up the nerve to ask her out.

When a new hire suddenly shows up who looks exactly like Simon - minus the paralyzing insecurity and with a sexy swagger that catches Hannah's eye - life for Simon slowly starts spinning out of control.

Adapted for the screen by director/actor Richard Ayoade ("Submarine" and "The IT Crowd" ) and Avi Korine (the kid brother of "Spring Breakers" auteur Harmony Korine), "The Double" retains all of Dostoevsky's central themes. Madness, alienation and the loss of identity swirl around the film's edges like film-noir fog.

At the same time, the filmmakers inject a much-needed dose of dark humor into the tale.

Though suicide is epidemic in this retro-futuristic society - a decrepit, Orwellian dystopia with the dingy, sagging look of a used tea bag and the office infrastructure of mid-20th-century Moscow - the rampant hopelessness is treated as something of a joke. After Simon witnesses a neighbor jump to his death early in the tale, a pair of detectives investigating the incident argue about whether Simon might also be at risk of killing himself.

"Should I put him down as a 'no'?" asks one notebook-toting cop, after Simon denies being depressive.

"Put him down as a 'maybe,'  " says his partner, eyeing our hero suspiciously.

As "The Double" progresses, however, it becomes increasingly less funny, not to mention ever more difficult to tell Simon from James (or even to be sure whether they are, in fact, two different people).

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