Thursday, June 23, 2011
The Devil's Double ('11 Lee Tamahori)
A sadistic but engaging Muslim leader takes an instantaneous liking to a soft-spoken outsider. They usher them into their inner sanctum, lavish them with gifts, riches and a taste of a better life they could only dream of. They treat their new friend as a toy, becoming intensely possessive towards them and act like a violent, petulant child when their dancing marionette tries to cut free of their strings.
That’s the premise of The Devil’s Double, but it could just as easily refer to the 2006 film, The Last King of Scotland which won Forest Whitaker a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. In some respects, Dominic Cooper’s performance in The Devil’s Double eclipses Whitaker’s; degree of difficulty aside, you’d be hard pressed to find a performer on screen *more* than Cooper is here.
A gimmick in the best sense of the word, British actor Cooper (An Education) plays both Uday Hussein, entitled party boy and eldest child of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and Latif, Uday’s reluctant double, employed to make pesky public appearances and draw assassins fire while the real McCoy is off getting laid and doing mountains of coke. Forced into servitude by fear and threats against his family, Latif watches on in ever mounting horror as Uday uses his autonomy to rape, torture and murder all the while grinning like the world is his own private sandbox.
Like Whitaker, Cooper makes a three course meal of the part, masking his sociopathic behavior behind a giggle and a twinkle in his eye. Uday is all id; shrieking about his hatred of Jews and Kuwaitis in one moment and in the next standing in the middle of the street loudly proclaiming his love for a part of the female anatomy using a word that’s best not spoken in polite company. The character is defined by a lack of barriers and absence of self-control. Whether gutting an associate of his father for embarrassing him or forcing his party guests to strip naked for his amusement, Uday remains a remorseless monster yet easily recognizable as the spoiled rich kid who grew up never hearing the word “no.” It’s a fantastically hammy performance by Cooper and every time Uday is on screen The Devil’s Double possesses a live-wire quality, as though we’re watching someone live out their wildest Scarface-inspired dreams.
The problem with The Devil’s Double though, as it was with The Last King of Scotland, is that this isn’t the story of the charismatic despot (or in the case of this film, son of a despot) but rather that of the decent but unmemorable commoner who serves as our window into the madness. And here’s where praise for Cooper gets tricky: as fascinating as his performance as Uday is, that’s how much of an onscreen wet blanket Latif is. Working from an overly literal script by Michael Thomas, director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) and Cooper depict Latif as a saint, passively judging his hedonistic doppelgänger while (almost) never succumbing to the temptations of unchecked power and wealth. In mistaking Uday and Latif for opposite sides of the same character, the film robs both creations of dimension and subcutaneous desire. It’s as though the filmmakers don’t trust the viewers to differentiate between the behavior of the two men without creating a complete and total contrast.
Which is unfortunate as The Devil’s Double is at its best when it attempts to blur the line between Uday and Latif as the increasingly unreliable former cedes more of his responsibilities to the latter. We see Latif practicing hate rhetoric in the mirror and rallying the Republican Guard more convincingly than Uday ever could (as one perceptive on-onlooker points out, the real Uday would have been drunk and foaming at the mouth). Uday uses Latif as the ultimate form of self-love; a version of himself that he can hug and party with. After Latif’s hand is crippled in an ambush, a panicked Uday rushes to the hospital and berates the surgeon to save his double’s digits… but only so he himself won’t need to lose a finger to continue perpetuating his ruse.
Taking a break from big studio work for hire, Tamahori’s stages Uday’s life like the world’s greatest party that’s in constant danger of being interrupted by a shoot-out. Often set to a gaudy 80’s pop music (one sequence staged to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” calls to mind, appropriately enough, DePalma’s Body Double), The Devil’s Double relishes in carnal excess, whether its Ludivine Sagnier grinding on the dance floor for Latif’s (and our) benefit or the ease in which a carving knife disembowels a man, there’s an unblinking amorality to its depiction of Uday’s lifestyle as sex, drugs and violence all begin to bleed together.
Yet the fluidity of morality only goes so far, hitting a brick wall whenever it deals with Latif’s short-lived internal struggle between right and wrong. Rarely taking action against his captor, the character is instead a modern day Bartleby, the Scrivener, sitting in a chair politely refusing to murder on Uday’s behalf. Eventually the film falls into a predictable rhythm of Latif attempting to break free of Uday’s grasps, only to be thwarted and reluctantly roped back into the fray. Uday rapes and pillages while Latif looks on in the role of the stern taskmaster, remaining above the fray without providing any counteraction. Ultimately, the two Coopers serve as a perfect metaphor for the film itself: half exhilarating, half finger wagging.
The Devil’s Double opens in limited release on July 29th.