by George Wolf
War Dogs starts with a guy in the trunk of a car and works backward, ending two hours later over the sound of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” Though both devices are tactical errors, what’s between them is a fairly effective take on true, undeniably American events.
David Packouz (Miles Teller) was a struggling twenty-something massage therapist in Miami when he re-connected with childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). Together, they grew Diveroli’s modest gun selling business into a 300 million dollar contract with the Pentagon to arm our allies in Afghanistan.
As Diveroli is quick to point out, “It’s not about being pro-war, it’s about being pro-money.”
Director/co-writer Todd Phillips, expanding a resume built on comedies such as The Hangover trilogy and Old School, brings a suitable zest to the insanity of this guns-to-riches tale, but falters when the time comes to move beyond his filmmaking comfort zone.
With The Big Short just last year, Adam McKay brought comedic sensibilities to the complexities behind financial corruption, dissecting a scandal with humor, insight, and most importantly, a constant undercurrent of outrage that War Dogs is missing.
It does feature a fantastic performance from Hill, and if you still doubt his acting chops after two Oscar nominations, that’s a YP. Hill is magnetic, making Diveroli a darkly charming sociopath who effortlessly becomes whomever his latest mark wants him to be. Don’t be surprised if nomination number three comes calling in a few months.
Teller is fine, if a bit underwhelming next to Hill, while Ana de Armas is asked to do little more than hold a baby in the embarrassingly cliched role of Packouz’s wife.
Phillips does serve up some hearty laughs and effective set pieces while telling this incredible tale, but too much of the journey feels like a testosterone-fueled romp that’s more about respect for the boys’ brazen ambition than the sad truths it revealed. It’s not that Phillips doesn’t want to dig deeper, he’s just not sure how to do it on his own terms.
More than anything, War Dogs is a film that constantly reminds you of other films. The Hangover vibe is rampant, from the guy in the trunk to the effective cameo by Bradley Cooper, but there are also shots lifted right from Scarface and Rain Man, plus stylistic nods to multiple Scorsese titles, especially Wolf of Wall Street.
That film, like The Big Short, carried a healthy dose of cynicism to dig at the wages of excess. War Dogs doesn’t, and closing with one of the most brilliantly cynical songs ever written only makes that fact more obvious.
It’s clear Phillips knows how to make us laugh. War Dogs is his uncertain step toward making us think, too.