War Dogs pitches for Goodfellas-style drama as often as it does stoner comedy.
The marketing for War Dogs is deceptive. The poster pays homage to Scarface; the coupling of Jonah Hill and Miles Teller suggest a bromance; and the trailer makes it look like Pineapple Express. But it’s not really any of these things. If you’re going into it thinking it’s going to be like The Hangover, you’ll find that you’re mistaken.
As it happens though, director Todd Phillips is in fact responsible for the entire Hangover franchise, as well as such classics as Road Trip and Old School, so who can blame you? Like a frattier, raunchier Judd Apatow, it’s a career based around bro movies, where gross men get into mischief and capers and bond or something. And though Phillips certainly retains a lot of that here, he seems to have become a bit more aspirational.
War Dogs plays kind of like Wolf of Wall Street-lite: money; drugs; business success; retrospective voice-over narration; Jonah Hill – there are many similarities. It’s also a “true” story – based on an article, then a book, by Rolling Stone contributor Guy Lawson – about the totally improbable and ill-advised exploits of young wealthy men, carried away with success and power. Just this time it’s two wayward Miami lads in the mid-2000s.
Miami lad #1, David Packouz, is a young, basically decent 20-something stoner who massages rich people and nurses vague dreams of starting some kind of rest-home manchester empire. Enter Miami lad #2, Efraim Diveroli, David’s childhood best-friend, who invites him in on his burgeoning international arms dealing business. David soon becomes very wealthy and morally askew and, as you can imagine, their super successful but super suss business starts causing trouble.
It’s a great story and it’s well told. Few things seem quite as dense and irrelevant and boring to me as the mechanics of war or relationships between self-absorbed middle class white guys. War Dogs is about both, yet I was engaged and basically entertained all the way through. They go to Fallujah! They go to Albania! They go to Las Vegas! It’s quick and fun with nice images of interesting places.
Phillips also makes it all super accessible. One thing that always loses me in films about military biz or war stuff is the faux logic to it all. Whether it be a micro or macro perspective on fighting, I can never grasp the point of the day-to-day of it. In War Dogs that chaos makes sense, because there is breadth but no depth. In a big flat way, we have all we need to know about David and Ephraim’s war foibles.
In the same way, though, it is also blaringly unsubtle. Ephraim is obsessed with Scarface, and there are images of George Bush everywhere. The film’s divided into chapters – each with a title to introduce them – and in every segment that follows, a character at some point says the title in their dialogue. You know when you’re watching a movie and someone in the movie says the title of the movie? It’s like that but every 20 minutes.
Hill, though watchable and committed, never rises above caricature and Teller, as the straight man, is blandly diluted by his apparent goodness. Unsurprisingly for the guy who made The Hangover, it’s most clunky when we’re expected to buy into David’s relationship with his partner Iz who, in the span of the movie, conceives, gestates, and births David’s child with nary a peep. She’s sweet, super beautiful and never talks about anything but David, so she’s obviously meant to be a fantasy. But even then she gets stuck in the disapproving-girlfriend-you-have-to-lie-to rut, and ultimately is just a plot device to encourage him to confront his moral dilemma. Grim AF.
What really gets War Dogs is that Phillips never quite gives up on it being some kind of docu-drama biopic, a cynical morality tale perhaps, about America and the war and Bush and young people and male friendship. But ultimately he has nothing in particular to say about any of these things except that they’re not always that great.
War Dogs is being sold as some kind of Judd Apatow bromance, which while logical, is misleading given that it pitches for Goodfellas-style drama as often as it does stoner comedy. It’s an odd mix, and the tone is weird, and God knows I don’t condone any director who repeatedly casts Bradley Cooper. But having said that I did enjoy it. It was funny at times and sometimes it’s just nice to be told a good story in a logical order by good performers without having to think too hard. Maybe that’s how they should have sold it?
War Dogs is in cinemas now.