Watch his eyebrow. It's hard to pinpoint exactly how Jesse Eisenberg does it in Richard Ayoade's dystopian "The Double," but by merely changing a few visual and emotional inflections, Eisenberg shifts from sad-sack nobody to pompous force of nature. Here he is in one corner, a complete zero. And in another, a fiendish standout.
This ambitious and beautifully designed black comedy asks: What if your exact double suddenly popped up in your workplace?
And what if — the film goes on to ask with just a touch of predictability and pretension — your arrogant and ruthless double was what you wanted to be?
The doppelganger storyline of "The Double," which was inspired by the classic Dostoevsky novella of the same name, spins out in glorious style, thanks to Eisenberg's impressive performance and Ayoade's furiously bleak sense of place.
The Fresno Filmworks presentation screens Friday only at Tower Theatre.
The film gives us a crumbling world of existentialist woes where it's always night, with flickering lights, shadowy corridors, decrepit machinery and retro technology setting the ambiance in ominous corporate offices and grim high-rise housing blocks. Eisenberg plays the tentative and stammering Simon, a man so meek and forgettable that the security guard at his company keeps forgetting he works there.
Simon is stuck in his small and gloomy life: commuting to a thankless job on a tired train, suffering under his blustery boss (played by the consummate Wallace Shawn), spying with a telescope on Hannah (a riveting Mia Wasikowska), a co-worker who lives in the apartment building across from him.
But his life is changed when a new colleague, "James," arrives in the office. James is everything that Simon is not: outgoing, charismatic, brash, manipulative. He also happens to look exactly like Simon, which no one else in the office seems to notice.
At first they become friends, and the two men enact the tentative first steps of what could almost become a buddy movie, with the saucier Simon teaching his eager double a thing or two about getting out in the world and enjoying life.
But the film is far darker than that, and Ayoade soon pulls out all the stops with a storyline that gets increasingly more weird and menacing.
It's all very determined and beautifully wrought. The visuals, embracing us in Simon's austere physical and emotional worlds, are gorgeous. And Eisenberg's performance — or performances, depending on how you look at it — is acting at the highest level of the craft.
For all the ambition, however, I found it hard to actually get caught up in the film. It's too chilly an experience for that. I admired the gusto of director, star and the art department even while holding back a little, occasionally finding the whole thing a little tedious.
But it's a treat to experience a film that stakes a claim, piles on the talent and carries the concept through — and does it as beautifully as this.
"The Double," rated R (language). Stars Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn. Directed by Richard Ayoade. Running time: 93 minutes. A Fresno Filmworks presentation at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave. Tickets: $10 and $8. Grade: B-