It seems to be an unwritten law in Hollywood that if you’re successful as a comedy director for long enough, you’ll eventually try to make a dramatic movie in a bid to be taken seriously. That’s where Todd Phillips is at with ‘War Dogs’. Thankfully, like Adam McKay before him, he hasn’t gone full po-face and has delivered a serious comedy rather than a drama.
Unfortunately, Phillips is neither as original nor ambitious as McKay, so ‘War Dogs’ is no ‘Big Short’. It’s too indebted to too many other movies (mostly directed by Martin Scorsese) for that. However, it’s decent effort and it comes with a pretty fantastic performance from Jonah Hill, an actor far better at pushing his particular brand of comedy into drama than his director.
The movie takes place in the midst of the Bush era, when war was America’s most successful export and a booming business. After the media revealed that Dick Cheney was cutting unfair deals to his old buddies, the ability to supply arms to the U.S. Army was put on the open market. That’s where Efraim Diveroli (Hill) came in. A con man who was preternaturally talented at saying what people wanted to hear and being whomever was needed at the time, Diveroli started a low-end arms dealing business connecting international suppliers with the American military. He also brought in his old high school buddy David Packouz (Miles Teller), who was struggling through life as a massage therapist at the time, to help. Packouz serves as the narrator to this story, and for the first half of the movie, the boys’ scheming and dealing plays as a long profitable party. Things get serious after they make a few million driving handguns through dangerous deserts to an Army station in Iraq and soon they find themselves setting up a massive $300 million deal. That deal involved illegal Chinese bullets supplied by a dealer on the terrorist watch list (Bradley Cooper, oddly) and a whole lot of forged documents submitted to the government. That’s where the party stops and everything comes crashing down.
‘War Dogs’ is based on one of those so-crazy-it-has-to-be-true stories pulled from a Rolling Stone article. It’s also based on’ Goodfellas’ and countless other movies that followed it, which positioned charming folks working outside the law as fun-time party animals until their illegality catches up with them for a little morality play. Phillips handles the first half of the movie the best, because it’s not that far removed from his mainstream comedies. The guy has always been an uncommonly talented visual storyteller for a comedy filmmaker. He moves things along stylishly and has fun with a gently ironic tone that plays horrible behavior and despicable characters for laughs.
Miles Teller holds things together just fine as the lead, but his narrator is kind of a blank slate and a humble observer for the most part. (Even so, he’s more of a character than the walking bit of beauty and moralizing that Ana de Armas plays as his wife, a character so underwritten that she doesn’t even get a last name.) However, Jonah Hill really sinks into this movie and makes it fly. Early on, he’s a more dangerous version of the hilarious loudmouth dink he played in ‘Superbad’. He’s smart and selfish and consumed with excess, but charming in his nutjob passion. Then, as the movie teeters into a dark second half, Hill gently nudges the character into a full-on sociopath while still carrying the few remaining laughs. That’s a tricky balancing act. The performance is both broadly comedic and disturbingly grounded, and Hill pulls it off so damn well that you’ll almost wish he’d had the lead role in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ over DiCaprio. (“Almost” being the key word.)
Unfortunately, Phillips can’t quite pull off that tonal transition as co-writer or director as well as Hill does. ‘War Dogs’ grows increasingly clunky and routine as the story gets serious and the big con falls apart. Phillips has no problem shooting dramatic sequences with skill and style; he just doesn’t quite know how to tell the story in a gripping way without humor to fall back on. Things get a little tedious as all the failures and betrayals pile up. It doesn’t help that Teller is stuck in such a dry role that he can’t even amp up his usual manic energy to bring a little extra tension into play. The second half of ‘War Dogs’ should in theory be suspenseful and horrifying while building towards a cynical punchline. Instead, the movie becomes like its characters, a bunch of people who memorized ‘Scarface’ and ‘Goodfellas’ playing pretend.
At least ‘War Dogs’ is still an unconventionally dark and ambitious comedy for the summer movie season. It has some strong ideas, a handful of brilliant sequences, and a devilishly funny and twisted performance from Jonah Hill that proves he’s a genuinely interesting actor in addition to being one of the funniest comedy headliners around. If you hear anyone praising ‘War Dogs’, they’re likely praising Hill indirectly. Even those who despise the movie will have to admit the guy is pretty damn good.