There is no conventional wisdom that states that you get the biopic you deserve. Indeed, terrible movies have been made from compelling public figures, while other, less respectable folks have been unfortunately immortalized by the craft behind their cinematic stories. Ideally, the film isn’t a validation or condemnation of the person, but unfortunately, history favors public opinion over nuance. Hell, there are some people who think “Forrest Gump” was a real person.
Uday Hussein, the murderous son of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, is the subject of Lee Tamahori’s sideways-biopic “The Devil’s Double.” Tantalizingly, the film is not about him as a person, but himself as a symbol. Our main character is Latif Yahia, a low-key commoner who bears a striking resemblance to Hussein. When Uday notices this, some light cajoling mixed with death threats lead to Latif becoming the Satanic son’s stand-in.
Nominally, this means Latif wearing fake teeth and appearing at public events, some where Hussein is being targeted for an assassination attempt. However, the other part of the job is allowing Hussein to peacock in public, bringing along Latif as a frequent partner in actual crime, whether it be punishing underlings or seeking out underaged girls for forced sexual encounters. When not made up to look like the dictator’s son, Latif is heavy-lidded, drawn inwards, sitting alone as Hussein’s parties erupt, usually while he fires a gun into the ceiling. From the very beginning, when he clarifies to Hussein that, “You want me to extinguish myself,” we are watching a corpse.
Hussein meanwhile, walks into a room hair first, dandy-ish and with a high-pitched whine of a voice. Prone to tantrums and random acts of violence, the movie’s interpretation of this man is a socially-inept slug who has legitimately never worked a single day in his life. He’s a danger to anyone who shares a room with him, and Latif can only console himself with the fact that not only is he invaluable to Hussein, but he also enjoys surrounding himself with hundreds of other potential corpses.
The central gimmick that separates “The Devil’s Double” from being just another sub-”Caligula” bacchanalia is that both Hussein and Yahia are played by the actor Dominic Cooper. From a physical perspective, it’s a remarkable transformation. Cooper’s Hussein is a bucktoothed cock of the walk, a prospective Mr. Cool who never finds the right rhythm to accomplish the seductive swagger he sees in his toned, serious double. The taciturn Yahia, a more handsome, brooding type, Hussein almost sees an upgraded version of himself, and he watches his impersonator closely with childish glee. Quite genuinely, the viewer forgets that he’s watching the same actor play dual roles. This gives certain scenes a fascinating psychological angle as well: a moment in the shower where Hussein informs his double he will have to trim his genitalia to allow for a closer match is revealed as a joke but still reveals a sinister competitive edge to Hussein’s own sexuality.
Director Lee Tamahori, who has languished in director jail for the one-two punch of “Next” and “XXX: State Of The Union,” doesn’t show much of an interest in narrative cohesion. One could re-edit the middle hour of “The Devil’s Double” and it wouldn’t feel much different. Scenes of brutality follow each other in quick succession, with Hussein gleefully losing control as Yahia looks on with disapproving glances. There’s no mounting frustration on Yahia’s part that he’s doing the devil’s bidding because his dissatisfaction is seen early on, combined with the lack of escalation in Hussein’s activities: he’s a murderer from beginning to end. While it is based on the real life story of Latif Yahia, he is mostly a cipher to allow for the unfiltered debauchery of Hussein’s reign. It’s a dip into exploitation of the most grotesque: “The Devil’s Double” begins with a somber collection of real-life footage of Middle East atrocities and murders. A similar montage resurfaces later, only scored to club music of the era.
In most respects, “The Devil’s Double” lacks grace or nuance, instead content to rub filth into the audience’s face, whether it be lingering over the spilled intestines of one unlucky partygoer who besmirches Hussein or pooh-poohing his addiction to transvestites. Cooper’s dedication to Hussein’s inherent unlikability only adds to the queasy factor: seeing him grope the breasts of an underaged girl is only augmented by his desperate, sad pleas of, “Beg me to fuck you.” Lee Tamahori has made a smutty exploitation picture. It’s the movie Uday Hussein deserved. [C+]