‘War Dogs’ squanders a good story

AUGUST 20TH, 2016 — POST 229

Goodfellas ruined voiceover. A movie so iconic in its use of a specific kind of narration through voiceover has made the work of sincere filmmakers giving voiceover a concerted effort look like film school imitation. This voiceover style — one laced with subjectivity, with profanity, with “dude cool” — has become a crutch: a poor way to signal edginess, criminality, and masculine knowhow.

When I saw the first trailer for War Dogs, which opened nationally in the U.S. this weekend, the liberal application of this voiceover technique was my only cause for pause. Because between the premise (two twentysomethings contracted to deliver arms to the U.S. military in Iraq), the lead cast (Miles Teller and Jonah Hill), and what seemed possibly the first non-serious movie of this conflict, I was in.

It didn’t take long to want out, however. Beginning with a cold open — one that our hero pulls us out of with a voiceovered quip atop a still frame “This is me…” — I knew I’d have to adjust my expectations. My expectations already had seen some adjustment earlier in the week when speaking with a friend about it. He wasn’t buying my excitement. Director Todd Phillips (most recently of the Hangover movies) is a dumb comedy guy, he said. War Dogs, in his eyes, couldn’t be anything but a thinly veiled, phallus-obsessed failure. And, having seen it, I would concede this is true. If it was at all funny.

Short of some dead-weight one-liners, War Dogs doesn’t play like a comedy. Sure, the buddy comedy premise — Hill the goofer, Teller the straight man — was highlighted heavily in the trailer. But for the most part, it’s a story of David (Teller) falling into working with an old friend Efraim to pay for a child on the way. He’s seduced by the “Not taking shit from anyone” ideology Efraim wants to embody with the help of automatic weapons, but if there’s any “buddy” allegiance, it’s distant. And yet never distant enough to fall into “odd couple” a la Analyze This. Instead we have the makings of a genuine character conflict — both individuals navigating the usage of each other for their own ends.

It’s hard to diagnose what happened — either Phillips wanted to take a comedy script dramatic or Phillips tried to mine a solid dramatic piece for comedic effect. But the symptoms are clear: War Dogs is a blurry mess. It just doesn’t know what it wants to be, can’t lean in without knowing in which direction to lean. There are even some genuine pointed insights through David’s voiceover about the “war is an economy” meta thesis of the movie, but these are never more than “truth bombs” dropped as if the audience is being told “Wake the fuck up, sheeple!”. Without focus, so much feels half-baked, a big toe dipped into, never given the attention it deserves.

The true shame of War Dogs is the story it had to work with. A Rolling Stone feature of David and Efraim that details a true series of events that just feel unreal. How the fuck could these kids pull it off? These kinds of stories are built with layered conflict — internal about the decision to sell guns, interpersonal between David and Efraim, and global in the form of militarised geopolitical struggle and military bureaucracy — and are simply ripe for fictionalisation. There is just so much fruitful ground that it might be understandable if what War Dogs became is the product of being overwhelmed. But we won’t get anything better.

If you squint, there’s a The Big Short in here if under the direction of Adam McKay. If you squint in another direction, there’s an American Hustle, a smart character-driven comedy, if David O. Russell took up the helm (O. Russell favourite Bradley Cooper appears here too in ridiculous costume). And if your eyes are almost closed, you just might see a Three Kings-style study of the absurdity of war. But with eyes wide open, all you’ve got is War Dogs.

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