REVIEW: Dominic Cooper Makes a Wicked-Good Uday Hussein The Devil's Double
The gangster fairy tale is transplanted into a Baghdad palace -- or is it the other way around? -- in The Devil's Double, the story of the Iraqi man induced into service as a double for Uday Hussein, the notorious, psychopath son of Saddam. Director Lee Tamahori has built an undeniably sleek, action-driven vehicle -- the film begins with a town car convoy racing through the Iraqi desert and ends with a shootout in a Porsche -- so much so that the question of who's zoomin' who extends to the story's flashy framework. If the dynamic that develops between Uday and Latif Yahia (whose memoir is the film's putative source) were better defined, or Gulf War-era Iraq drawn in as something more than backdrop, the balancing act may have worked in Tamahori's favor. As it is, The Devil's Double, a handsome and occasionally dazzling thriller with at least one dynamo performance from its star, is ultimately dominated by its style.
Latif (Cooper with a thick moustache and lightly modulated accent) is a working man from a good family when he is brought to Uday (also Cooper, with a Bugs-y overbite and a high-pitched Arab lilt) as a possible candidate for duty as his double. When it is made clear that the job offer is not really an offer, Latif settles into a glower that he maintains through his punishments (including surgery to enhance the resemblance), his rewards (life at the top of a dictatorship means the best of everything, as Darryl Hannah says in Wall Street, and more), and his observations of Uday's monstrous and certifiable insanity. By contrast, Cooper is practically alight as the kingpin without a kingdom, chirping with bonhomie or simpering with insecurity one moment and thrashing with rage the next. It's the tweaky childishness of Uday's mutant id that makes the performance, despite its archetypal excesses, indelible. Light touches on the theme -- like Saddam (Philip Quast) mistaking Latif for his son and Cooper's giddiness as he declares the perfection of his naked double's body -- and the soundtrack's chugging, Arab-inflected beats keep the pace going.
If the boys are not slumming about the palace, they're out at the clubs, which is where Uday's A-list moll Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier) can generally be found, and where we get our best sense, through Dead or Alive singles and spandex get-ups, of the context. Talk of Kuwait begins more than halfway through, but the story's focus remains insular. Though there is a certain truth to Sarrab's conflation -- once she curtails her glazed leering long enough to talk to Latif about "the way it is in Iraq" -- of the country with Uday's appalling whims, the line passes as filler instead of a glimpse of meaningful fatalism. The helplessness of the people is invoked over and over, as is the forecast that someday, Insh'Allah, all of this will be over; in the meantime the escape into a conditional reality is agreed to be the best hope for survival. There's so much of that kind of talk, in fact, and so little to mitigate it, that one gets a little queasy, wondering if we are meant to believe that anything -- and by anything I mean eight years of American occupation -- would be better than the continued reign of the Husseins.
The defining journey is that to Latif's outer moral limits, and most of the film consists of Uday and his grisly libido pushing farther and farther into them. That game has its own limits, even given Cooper's incandescent charisma, and its interest proves tough to sustain. Uday claims an obsessive love for Latif, early and often; less clear are Latif's struggles to maintain a sense of himself that will outlast evil if it can't defeat it. The idea of a larger id and superego struggling to form a viable identity is one that runs under The Devil's Double, if too far down under the film's glitz and gratuitous horrors to make itself known.