Miles Teller and Jonah Hill in War Dogs
Playing a little catch up as we close out August, starting with Todd Phillips’ latest bro-nightmare movie, War Dogs. For a director known for comedies—namely The Hangover trilogy, but also Road Trip, Old School, and Due Date, among others—Phillips doesn’t seem to like directing comedies. He got successful making movies about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, but his late work has been unpleasant, too, in and of itself—it kind of feels like we’re being punished for going to see his movies in the first place. War Dogs is the latest in his hate-watch catalog, and it’s a particularly ugly example of the Phillips phenomenon.
Based on a Rolling Stone article, and subsequent book, by Guy Lawson, War Dogs tells the improbably true story of how a couple twenty-something meatheads from Miami gamed the no-bid contract system then-Vice President Dick Cheney put into place to award government contracts. As if you needed any proof that was a terrible f*cking plan from the beginning, here come these two assholes to prove just how easy it was. Miles Teller stars as David Packouz, a seemingly nice stoner stuck in a dead-end, degrading job, with a baby on the way and no way to support her. Enter his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), an obvious sociopath and con man with a plan to get rich selling guns through the new no-bid system.
There are a lot of problems with War Dogs, but the performances aren’t among them. Teller is always watchable, and even though David is a bit of a wet noodle, and makes for the most gullible narrator in the history of ever, Teller’s charm keeps him interesting enough. But Hill is the real standout, going in literal guns blazing as Efraim. Hill does not shy away from Efraim’s excess or his patheticness, and he embraces Efraim’s slimy amorality and turns him into what should be one of the great cinematic scumbags, alongside Tony Montana and Jimmy Conway.
But all that potential is wasted by Phillips’ conflicting messages. He wants this to be condemnatory of the “kill or be killed” economic mentality that ruined our economy, but he also wants us to care whether or not David and Efraim are still friends. (It’s never clear, at any moment, why we should like Efraim at all, let alone hope he has friends.) He wants to excoriate Bush-era policies, but also revel in bros being bros in the Iraqi desert. And, like The Wolf of Wall Street, the economic commentary is compromised by the glut of wealth porn as the boys revel in their fast-made millions.
If you want to condemn the actions of hucksters and frauds, then you need to juxtapose the images of their ill-gotten gains with those of the people they’re hurting along the way. Efraim and David are arms dealers, yet they are barely confronted with the reality of what is going on with the war they’re supplying. There’s a token confrontational moment with their reality, but Efraim is such a sociopath he doesn’t blink and David is too invested in still seeming like a good guy despite the war profiteering to pontificate on the cost of war. The one voice of decency in the whole movie is David’s wife, Iz (Ana de Armas, totally stranded by sh*t material), but though she chastises David, she still supports him. It’s a very milquetoast form of condemnation.
In the tradition of Scarface, Goodfellas, and The Wolf of Wall Street—so basically, all the classic American Scumbag movies—with a dash of The Big Short thrown in for a falsely moralizing ending, War Dogs is a sweaty, bro-y, barely even sheepish celebration of Bush-era amorality dressed in coke and cash that squanders a brilliant scumbag performance from Jonah Hill.