Skip to main content

Would you do that? Would you wrap a lizard in cashmere?

War Dogs
(2016)

(SPOILERS) The news that Martin Scorsese and Todd Phillips will be collaborating on a Joker origins movie (most likely not starring Leonardo DiCaprio, if he has any common sense) elicits a secondary reaction after the initial “Why ever would you want to make a Joker origins movie?”; What does Marty get out of the deal? He’s only producing, after all, so lending his name to a Todd Phillips written and co-directed effort will inevitably bear fruit tantamount to every other Todd Phillips comedy vehicle. Because War Dogs is essentially Phillips trying on a Scorsese overcoat for size, of a The Wolf on Wall Street variety, and delivering something closer to The Hangover.


When Marty makes something that approximates traditional Phillips fare, he delivers After Hours (possibly his best movie, but whisper it); he can’t help but class up material. Phillips can’t help but make his more cartoonish, broader, emptier, less demanding. Added to which, he veers towards the gleefully amoral anyway, so asking him to depict conscience-free capitalism run riot – “This isn’t about being pro-war. It’s about being pro-money” – is inevitably going to tend towards revelling in the misdeeds than proving cautionary (hence Miles Teller’s character being rewarded at the end with a suitcase full of cash; not something that actually happened).


So it is with War Dogs. It’s well made (Phillips is a pretty good comedy director, which isn’t damning with faint praise as most of them have little in the way of visual imagination), well cast, has fertile material in the account of twenty-something arms dealers Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) acting most unscrupulously in order to cater to a morally bankrupt industry (like attracts like), but it has no real impact. It doesn’t linger in the mind. As Guy Lawson, from whose 2011 Rolling Stone article this is adapted, opined, “you watch the end and you think it’s about these [two] guys. It’s not. It’s about the system”. But then, Phillips isn’t a deep guy.


One wonders whose decision it was to cut the third party to the events depicted, Alex Podrizki. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Phillips, wary of comparisons to The Hangover that another central trio up to drug-fuelled no-good might encourage. Except that he’s inviting unflattering comparisons throughout. With Wolf by casting that movie’s Jonah Hill (very good nevertheless, particularly so when revealing Efraim’s sociopathic underbelly – the best businessmen often are so equipped, of course –  although the tendency to improv means the comedy throws the balance off at times). With other diluted War on Terror fare by making light of war zones (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Rock the Kasbah), which don’t, despite continually getting greenlit, equal box office. With any biopic that uses the voiceover to guide the viewer (see Scorsese again; when Teller explains “Ephraim never paid the box guy”, Ray Liotta swims into view). All washed down with a resolutely by-the-numbers soundtrack and tiresome pot-smoking montages.


Diveroli and Packouz (and Podrizki) took advantage of the requirement to put military contracts out to tender, post-scrutiny of Dick Cheney’s Haliburton spin-off KBR Inc eating up Iraq commissions – this operated more as window dressing than having any real effect on the majors, although this isn’t exactly an industry where one would be prone to protesting the cause of level playing fields in aid of enabling someone else to provide the instruments of death – and did indeed attempt to repackage banned Chinese munitions so as to sell them to the Afghan National Army (Chinese arms being embargoed post-Tiananmen Square).


Much of the movie’s more dramatic meat never actually happened, though – there was no dangerous drive through the Iraq “Triangle of Death” (the berretta deal was actually fouled), and it was Podrizki who ended up in Albania (but he wasn’t threatened at gunpoint). I’ve no issue with such material being invented, but the net result is Phillips shifting ever broader in tone and becoming less clear about what he’s actually saying. Throw in a rote subplot about Packouz’ girlfriend (it may be pretty much true, and Ana de Armas, shortly to be seen in Blade Runner 2049, is very winning, but that doesn’t make it any less inessential).


Adapting real events into black comedy can be tricky territory – look no further than Michael Bay with Pain & Gain to see how easy it is to screw up if you aren’t a funny guy. Phillips does know his funny, but this might have been funnier if it had been played straighter. And let its canvas billow a bit; Lawson has a point when he notes how fruitful it might have been to include the ineptitude of the Pentagon in all this. So I’m doubtful the Joker movie will find the right tone. Even less so that Phillips’ buddy Zach Galifianakis will play the lead character (he’s been there, done that). Mind you, I could see other buddy Bradley Cooper (who services a memorable cameo here) taking it on. If it wasn’t an origins tale.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985)
(SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and gleefully distr…

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.