Like Scarface crossed with the cheesiest telenovela imaginable, director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) tells a story almost too incredible to believe in The Devil’s Double. And yet, all of it was true, recounted by the man, Latif Yahia (Dominic Cooper), kept in virtual bondage to act as the body double to original gangsta Uday Hussein (also played by Cooper), the psychotic eldest son of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, in the ’80s and ’90s.

Iraq-Iran war vet Latif is yanked off a battlefield and given a choice that is really no choice at all: reject his former identity as a soldier and beloved son to a wealthy Iraqi businessman and become the doppelganger to a madman. Entering the Hussein family compound in Baghdad, Latif finds a world with the trappings of an 18th-century monarchy. There are food tasters and courtesans, scads of lackeys waiting to pounce behind thick curtains, evil rulers with unchecked power, and the human replicas hired to draw assassins’ bullets away from them.

Uday, who was killed by American soldiers in 2003, has become synonymous with the corrupt, bloodthirsty decadence of Saddam’s reign. He routinely plucked women, from virgin brides to school girls, from Baghdad’s streets to rape. When he served as the president of the Iraqi Olympic team, Uday tortured athletes who failed to perform to his expectations. His sadism and impunity are hard to fathom and yet, despite its ludicrous, garish excesses, watching The Devil’s Double leaves a lingering chill. The Hussein dynasty may be gone, but how many other countries harbor comparably decadent, lawless dictators and their children? Uday may have been unique in the depths of his sadism, but he certainly wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last corporate scion or celebrity in an expensive car cruising his city looking for trouble.

Unfortunately, the flamboyant Tamahori so removes his The Devil’s Double from the realm of reality that it’s hard to make such connections. In his hands, the story is parallel-universe surreal, like Mean Streets meets Arabian Nights. It’s too bad Tamahori wasn’t better able to convey the claustrophobia and horror of having the worst boss in the world.

Latif finds a few confidants within his waking nightmare, like the elegant, thoughtful Munem (Raad Rawi), an older adviser to Uday who knows he’s working for a psychopath and saves Latif’s skin on at least one occasion. Courting sure death, Latif also takes up with one of Uday’s hot-and-cold running courtesans, Sarrab, a whore with a heart of gold who takes a shine to Latif. As played by French actress and scenery chewer Ludivine Sagnier, Sarrab is a virtual cipher who seems awkwardly inserted into the story for conventional love story’s sake as well as one over-the-top and gratuitous sex scene. But like all of the female characters, there is a not-quite-human, dopey quality to Sarrab; she has all the multidimensionality of a babe in a music video.

That’s true of virtually all of the characters in The Devil’s Double (save the wounded, deep Munem). Most are observers of the film’s horrors and never seem like flesh-and-blood people. This is why The Devil’s Double so often feels like a straight-to-cable crime thriller. With perpetual golden light draping the gaudy gold furniture, luxury cars, and women decked out in enormous hair and kohl-lined eyes, the film is bathed in Middle Eastern kitsch, like one of M.I.A.’s irony-laced, high-style videos played absurdly straight. The material is so grotesque and over the top, in a literalist’s hands like Tamahori, it becomes gaudy and ridiculous. The director can’t decide if this is a drama about a grotesque dictatorship run amok or a sexy crime picture filled with gun play and a harem of scantily clad women. You pity the female extras ordered to disrobe in a disco to Frankie Goes to Hollywood; it’s double humiliation in such a mercilessly long-winded film with little on its mind beyond cataloging Uday’s depravity.

As Tamahori tells it, Latif is like an expensive, custom toy for Uday. He seems to fuel his narcissism, offering him the uncanny pleasure of a human mirror and pretend brother who does his bidding. Far from the psychopaths played by Joe Pesci or Robert De Niro in Scorsese films, Uday has an almost child-like quality in Tamahori’s film that makes him seem dismissible and absurd. Cooper plays Uday as a cackling Wile E. Coyote lunatic, who is nearly comical in his mayhem. But as the atrocities stack up, the entire film begins to play at a pitch closer to soap opera, with the kind of wall-to-wall pop music, slo-mo gun play, and fetishized machismo that leaves a lingering foul taste in your mouth.