Miles and Jonah Go to Albania

Film: War Dogs
Year: 2016
Director: Todd Phillips (also co-writer)

Todd Phillips: “I’m here for the gangbang.”
Ben: “Wrong movie, Todd.”

War Dogs, about the (mostly) factual rise and fall of 20-odd-year-old arms dealers Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, has drawn a host of hungry comparisons to the similarly themed The Wolf of Wall Street, that white collar crime epic that was Martin Scorsese’s best movie since the one before it (granted, Hugo had fewer great Quaalude scenes). I was reminded of another, even better film: last year’s The Big Short. All three are part of a recent wave of “rockstar businessman” movies, surging with a rebel spirit of construction as they carry out intelligent and informed scripts about real young men who took uncontrollable advantage of the system. (Office Space might be a common ancestor.) At least, they all set out to be: War Dogs, while an entertainment, is neither rebel nor intelligent enough to bounce as heavy and high as its predecessors.

Todd Phillips was once a director of pretty right-on comedies. Movies like Starsky & Hutch and Old School—and School for Scoundrels, if anyone even remembers it—had a unique knack for being silly and clever all at once. Then he made the Hangover trilogy, which I stopped watching after part one, along with the Downey-Galifianakis trip Due Date. These movies had a strange inclination to take themselves more seriously than they could handle, and I thought their humor suffered for it.

War Dogs is better at taking itself seriously. It is also better at being funny, although it does not often want to be. It is far from a flat-out disaster—really, it’s kind of good—but it is just as far from living up to the company it tries to keep. The writing and editing and direction of, for instance, The Big Short are all so chorically exhilarating and inspired and barrel-you-over confident that the movie enjoys total elegance as it slips between very grave and very goofy. War Dogs enjoys only enough of these qualities to be decent—about as graceful as a cheery garbage man.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you probably know that the movie portrays Diveroli (Jonah Hill) as something of a sociopath and Packouz (Miles Teller) as a basically well-meaning guy who gets caught up in a nasty business. It’s a shame that Hill and Teller, who can be like dynamite and Dean Martin on their own, make for a less interesting mixture than they sound. Nonetheless, each actor is reasonably well-suited to his role. There are moments when the depiction of Diveroli threatens to delve into slasher-level psychosis, but Hill ties the character together neatly enough. I was maybe more engaged by Teller, although the script is less accommodating than one like Whiplash to the humble, icy-hot charm that will take him far.

So, while not as scorchingly fun as it certainly could have been—even the original title, Arms and the Dudes, clings better to memory—War Dogs won’t quite waste your two hours. The moments when that Phillips brand of humor lifts its tired head are refreshing. I laughed out loud when a silk-voiced young minstrel (played by the real Packouz) sings “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” to a roomful of decrepit senior home residents. And, moreover, any movie since 2009 that pulls out deep cuts from Wolfmother’s first album must be doing something right.

A related note: I’ve been thinking about how both War Dogs and The Big Short are designed, in part, as educational movies. Each takes pause now and then to basically sum up world events that the viewer really must know to continue being entertained by the film. In Big Short, these sequences are very openly acknowledged and made a celebrated portion of the cinematic feast. War Dogs seems to sneak them in a bit more furtively, like pills in pet food. In both cases, the movie assumes the average viewer is uninformed of relatively recent and major news. Should we be offended by this? And, if so, should we because the movies are wrong, or because they’re right? I myself am politically illiterate, so the informative passages were not a superfluous inclusion. Should I be satisfied with this? If you look back, a picture like The Deer Hunter hardly breaks into a PowerPoint presentation on the Vietnam War. Did it assume its audiences knew everything they needed to know? Or did it want to encourage viewers to go forth and learn about what they didn’t understand? Does it matter if we get our education from art rather than news media? The Big Short, I don’t consider a popcorn movie, so I don’t mind learning from it things that I maybe should know already. War Dogs, I sort of do.

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