(USA) Biographical Comedy/Drama. Directed by Todd Phillips. Starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller. Category IIB. 115 minutes. Opened Sep 1.
What’s more American than stories about crooks hustling to get rich, à la “The Wolf of Wall Street”? Stories about crooks hustling to get rich by profiteering from guns and war. Or so we see in “War Dogs,” Todd Phillips’ film based on the true story of young’uns Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, who made their fortunes in the mid-noughties as international arms dealers during the Iraq War. Equipped with the bro-humor—minus the debauchery—of Phillips’ “The Hangover” but with weightier subject-matter, we’re taken on the rollercoaster ride of the duo’s notorious success and inevitable comeuppance.
Everyone loves a rags-to-riches story. Narrating through the fourth wall, David Packouz (Miles Teller) is the protagonist who’s down on his luck: He’s a lowly masseur living in Miami Beach with his pregnant girlfriend, serving the city’s richest while trying and failing to hustle and sell expensive Egyptian cotton sheets to old folks’ homes. At a family funeral, he chances upon his childhood buddy Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who invites him to join his business sourcing and selling arms to the US government. It turns out that in the weapons business, even the smallest cogs in the wheel can earn big coin, so David puts away the massage table and straps in for what seems to be an innocuous path to millionaire status.
In dissecting something as politically complex as the nefarious business dealings connected with the Iraq War, it’s not hard to draw comparisons with Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” and the way it explains the financial crisis. Compared to other films in Phillips’ oeuvre, this is serious stuff: The introductory lesson on gray market arms dealing is well paced and fun, tricked up enough with fast cuts and entertaining analogies that the weekend movie-going crowd will hardly notice they’ve inadvertently learned something.
Jonah Hill’s packed on the pounds again for this role, and it adds to the character’s compellingly douchey attitude: Selfish, misogynistic and a scrooge, recalling Hill’s bully act in “Superbad.” It’s uncommon to find Hollywood celebs who can ace that onscreen annoyingness and still earn respect for it. Conversely, ever since Miles Teller captured the limelight in “Whiplash,” he seems to have been typecast as the loser character trying to catch a break: It doesn’t feel like anything new from him at all.
It’s easy to predict how the two eventually reach their downfall, but half the fun is in the anticipation, and the rest is very satisfying to watch. And we’re left with a word of caution at the end: the real Diveroli and Packouz have already served their time in prison, and their company is set to be allowed to do business again in just a couple more years.
So what’s more American than the American dream? Letting crooks back in the game—and from “The Wolf of Wall Street” to “War Dogs,” the slightly douchey Jonah Hill comedies about it that ensue. If you’re not averse to that, watch on.