Other than in “The Social Network”, most of Jesse Eisenberg’s characterizations might have to be designated a modern day equivalent to the hapless Woody Allen movie character. That’s what made the aforementioned film such an anomaly (as well as in real life) when the nerd who has a hapless life turns out to be brilliant enough in business to bring him fame and fortune. Eisenberg’s other characters, however, are a far cry from that other “berg”: Mark Zuckerberg.
That’s why his new assured magician character named Daniel Atlas in “Now You See Me” is somewhat of a departure from the typical characters Eisenberg plays. You can’t play a neurotic hapless magician and be able to get away with it. Well, maybe that’s a plot that has yet to be written, despite the Atlas character fitting the more hotshot mold of how big budget magicians operate.
Obviously, Eisenberg doesn’t want to be pinned down as the nerdy hapless person who has every bad fortune happen to him. And yet he’s going there again soon with perhaps the most hapless character he’s ever played: The lead in an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “The Double.” Even if we don’t know exactly how this adaptation (from Richard Ayoade) is going to go, it’s still about Eisenberg’s character encountering his doppelganger who’s intent on taking over.
The above is supposed to be a comedy, which could technically take the film into Woody Allen territory. In fact, it’s a wonder Allen never adapted the story into a movie to take place in modern-day New York City. This one apparently does take place in modern day while still exploring the insanity Eisenberg’s character feels seeing the usurpation of his double.
In that regard, Eisenberg may have a chance to play both an assured side and a hapless side all in one movie. Doing so would be one of those ironic acting tour de forces you don’t see often. It may even provide a metaphor for how Eisenberg seems to grapple with his loser and winner characters.
Yes, he seems to waver now between those two roles, with perhaps a slow settling into something consistent. Was his Daniel Atlas character the role that puts him onto a consistent path of playing more characters with larger personalities who aim to win? In that regard, he may have to start playing villains to gain more traction.
It might be odd that it requires playing a villain to inject more life into a character. Eisenberg’s persona only fits a certain criteria depending on the setting, and his characters become more hapless when seen in small town settings. In the larger arenas, he’s doing an effective job at creating more assertive characters that love the limelight as much as the real Mark Zuckerberg does.
Even though his Atlas character is more an ambiguous villain, what would happen if Eisenberg played an over-the-top villain someday? For some, that might look like Woody Allen trying to play The Joker.
Then again, with complex neurotic behavior being at the center of most villains, Eisenberg may have a field day with that kind of reinvention.