If you're fed up with the clowns running our federal government, take heart: They could be a lot worse. At least Barack Obama probably isn't sucking up anthills of cocaine while threatening innocent bystanders with a gold-plated pistol. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell probably aren't cruising the streets of Washington D.C. in search of 14-year old girls to molest, either. But in other places, those behaviors are part of the divine right of kings. And one of the sick pleasures of Lee Tamahori's trashy new biopic The Devil's Double is that it underscores the difference between America's relatively civilized political corruption and the infernal madness of a truly lawless regime.
Adapted from Yatif Yahia's book, The Devil's Double examines Yahia's bizarre career as a state-sanctioned stand-in for Saddam Hussein's crazy son Uday. When he is first offered the job, Yatif betrays very little emotion as he's shown around Uday's golden palace. Instead, he almost instantly grasps the futility of his situation. He's like an undercover cop who's eternally trapped in deep cover.
Dominic Cooper has a good time balancing the diametrically opposed energies needed for his dual role. He shifts and recalibrates his eyes, his walk, his voice, and even his teeth to separate the cautious, reticent Yatif from Uday the giggling, short-tempered live wire. Cooper's work is effective and studious but unoriginal — half the time he's Michael Corleone and half the time he's Tony Montana.
Through clever blocking and CGI, Cooper often occupies the screen as both Uday and Yatif. But the most interesting use of trick photography occurs during a throwaway gag when Yatif catches Saddam playing tennis with one of his own doubles. Amid the goons and yes-men that hover on the periphery, shapely Ludivine Sagnier's bored, insouciant concubine is a nice foil for Cooper. But the level of human interest elsewhere is pretty low.
As Uday explains to Yatif, there is a long tradition of famous tyrants who employ look-alikes to perform dangerous state functions and confuse any potential assassins. Unfortunately, the numerous scenes relying on imperial decadence and (worse yet) action-movie tropes curtail a deeper examination of Yatif's emerging psychological dilemma. As Yatif's impersonation of Uday improves, there are a couple of sequences where it's not clear which Uday is the imposter. A more daring filmmaker — like David Fincher or some old pervert like Luis Bunuel — might have explored Yatif's loss of identity in greater, more revealing detail.
This skimming over of its main character's struggles is consistent with the film's love of glimmering, rotten-gold surfaces. News-channel montages of both the Iran-Iraq war and the events leading up to Gulf War I notwithstanding, The Devil's Double is neither a work of pop history nor an old-fashioned morality play; don't be fooled when one of Hussein's cronies mutters that "one day, when God wills it, we will have justice." But the film's final image — the words "the rest is history" over a black screen — is phony and boneheaded. It implies, unbelievably, that Iraq is a done deal, and that the post-Saddam landscape is rich with sunshine and lollipops.
Opening Friday, August 19th
Studio on the Square