By Eric Kohn | Indiewire July 27, 2011 at 2:08AM
It's hard to believe that "The Devil's Double" doesn't intend to be a put-on. Despite a real-life basis of its plot, Lee Tamahori's fierce depiction of hedonistic Saddaam Hussein spawn Uday Hussein relegates the character to a farcical cartoon. Looking like a macabre Groucho Marx, Dominic Cooper portrays Uday as a leering, cigar-puffing womanizer who alternates between scowling and grating hyena guffaws.
Cooper takes on a second role as well, playing the innocent Latif Yahia, Uday's lookalike who was forced against his will into becoming Uday's body double. As Yahia, Cooper delivers a vastly superior performance, wearing the dazed expression of a good man trapped in pure evil. He's also a good actor trapped in a bad movie.
Many of the problems with "The Devil's Double" stem from the nature of its narrative. Clearly produced for an English-speaking audience, the movie adopts an illogical method in which characters speak English with vaguely defined "foreign" accents. That unfortunate decision only enhances a synthetic quality that dominates each scene. Cooper's dual role is an equally transparent gimmick: The men look, unsurprisingly, like twins. The contrast provides a constant reminder that Cooper works better with soft-spoken characters and not poorly scripted "SNL" characterizations.
Since Uday's death alongside brother Qusay during the United States' 2003 invasion of Iraq, stories of Uday's antics took on a global dimension. The 2010 publication of Yahia's memoir (also titled "The Devil's Double") went to great lengths to flesh out Uday's villainy while attributing his behavior to a delusional power trip. However, Tamahori's adaptation reduces Uday into a cartoonish monster who wouldn't be out of place in a James Bond movie. (Tamahori directed one of the weaker Bond installments, "Die Another Day.")
"The Devil's Double," however, doesn't have the competence to make its history-as-thriller dynamic click. Riddled with grade-Z exploitation and made-for-TV amateurishness, the movie presumably uses shocking imagery to underscore the dark mind behind it. But when Uday literally spills the guts of his father's friend across a dinner table, "The Devil's Double" abandons credibility in favor of plain silliness.
Tamahori's filmography, which also includes "xXx: State of the Union," suggests he's the wrong fit for the material. David O. Russell's "Three Kings" successfully brought an American genre to Iraq without simplifying the setting. "The Devil's Double," on the other hand, confirms the crude, one-dimensional character types that still dominate the Western imagination.
Yahia's brief piece for Newsweek, published last week, does a much better job of encapsulating the experience of being subservient to a mad man. He closes by discussing the missed chance for justice that came with Uday's abrupt death. "The Devil's Double" has no such subtlety. It works as a period piece in only the most abstract sense, reflecting a time when Sadaam Hussein's regime still signified enemy number one. Appropriately, it plays like a clueless nightmare.
criticWIRE grade: D
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Lionsgate has high hopes for the film, particularly due to Cooper's committed performance, but poor reviews and a less-than-marketable plot will probably keep it from gaining too much momentum.