Yesterday morning, after I wrote about Moneyball, I went back and looked up the other films from 2011 in my little Film’s I’ve Seen notebook. I don’t actually have a little Films I’ve Seen notebook, but I do have a computer and an uncanny ability, usually, to read the title of a movie or see the poster and recall if I have recently watched it. Sometimes not. Alex Cross? I watched that? But sometimes I manage to remember something I did without even being reminded by a computer that I did it, and watching The Devil’s Double is one of those things.
I don’t know if that thing is a good thing or not, though. The Devil’s Double is definitely memorable, but it lacks the certain whatever that would make it truly unforgettable. Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark from Captain America: The First Avenger/Agent Carter and soon-to-be-star of AMC’s Preacher adaptation) pulls double duty as Uday Hussein (the eponymous Devil) and Latif Yahia (the eponymous Double) in this highly-fictionalized biopic, and he’s the reason the film sticks in your mind at all. Latif, the man forced to become the body double for the sadistic eldest son of Saddam Hussein, is the heart and soul of The Devil’s Double; Uday, heartless, soulless, is the real force of nature within the film.
Cooper is impressive as both, playing the two sides of the coin in a fresh way. On paper, having never seen the film, one might expect a single actor to assert himself in both roles in a particular manner. This lesser actor plays Latif as the timid unfortunate and plays Uday as the menacing megalomaniac. This lesser actor exudes an intelligence in both characters, effectively heightening the mental game of cat-and-mouse with himself as he acts his way through the film. Cooper does not do this. Latif is unfortunate, sure, but he’s hardly timid. He exudes power despite being powerless to do anything about his situation, which actually serves to heighten the tension even more: if Latif is ever given the tiniest of opportunities, the narrowest of windows, he’ll launch into action to take Uday down. Uday himself is less menacing than he is completely unpredictable, less megalomaniac than he is just maniac. And Cooper doesn’t exude much intelligence in Uday at all, tempting though it must have been to make him into a kind of dastardly Bond villain (especially considering Double‘s director had previously directed a Bond movie). Instead, Uday’s a spoiled brat with a sex obsession and a pile of guns in every corner, and he’s far more entrancing for it.
But the premise of The Devil’s Double and Cooper’s impressive turns somehow don’t add up to the greatness they should. Director Lee Tamahori puts in the finest work of his career here, and yet that’s a much less powerful statement when we consider his previous three directorial efforts were Die Another Day, xXx: State of the Union, and the Nicolas Cage flick Next. When you’ve helmed a wacky James Bond installment, a sequel to a xXx movie, and a film in which Nicolas Cage plays a Vegas magician that can predict the future like a straightfaced version of That’s So Raven, then your most admirable work is pretty much automatically the film about the inner workings of the vicious Hussein regime. What’s not automatic, unfortunately, is the strength of The Devil’s Double on premise and performance alone, and Tamahori’s direction fails to measure up in that respect.
It’s not a poorly-directed film, though, and really The Devil’s Double is just that much more frustrating for being almost amazing. A few of the narrative strokes approach pure convenience (like Uday’s mistress falling for Latif, or Latif having some time at home with his family because…wait, why is he suddenly at home with his family?); it’s certainly of note that Double is a fictionalized version of the actual story of Uday Hussein’s stand-in, though the jury’s obviously still out on how heavily that fictionalization falls, but in a way that’s kind of another point against it. A fictionalized version of a historical occurrence is totally fine, but one would hope that the made-up parts have been made up in order to move the story more fluidly or to add another layer of thematic heft to the real events. Double doesn’t convey that, hoping instead that Cooper’s characterizations will carry the entire film.
That said, long swaths of The Devil’s Double are brilliant. An early shot of Latif standing center stage with a mirror on the left reflecting his figure practically begs for the lookalike Uday to enter on the right to balance everything out. A pair of run-ins with one of Uday’s trusted bodyguards provides another nice mirror image wherein Latif spares the man’s life and then is granted the exact same in return. At best, The Devil’s Double is a doppelgänger movie that starts as something completely different, though it has all of the paired imagery from the start. As Latif becomes more and more adept at acting like the bizarro version of himself in public, it becomes more and more necessary that he distance himself from that Demented Latif in private.
It’s the kind of movie you really want to love uncategorically, which often happens when a lukewarm movie boasts a torrentially brave performance (as with David Oyelowo in Nightingale, for example). Dominic Cooper is the force for good, the force for evil, the memorable part of The Devil’s Double despite the ultimate failings. It’s certainly worth a watch, and it’s even worth a rewatch once the ins and outs of the plot fade from memory. But had it been firing on all cylinders instead of just 3/4, it wouldn’t fade at all.