W ar Dogs was originally called Arms and the Dudes, which makes it sound like a stoner comedy about bumbling weapons dealers from the guy who made the Hangover movies. And it's not that at all. Oh, it's directed and co-written by Todd Phillips, who wrote two and directed all three of the Hangover flicks, and it is about young arms dealers who frequently partake in illegal substances. But it's a comedy only of the darkest, bleakest kind.
It's cynical and satirical, but it's only satire in the sense that the whole world has become a parody of itself, like how you often cannot tell these days whether a news headline is from the New York Times or the Onion.
What happened is this: The "gold rush" of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for defense contractors hit a roadblock when it was revealed that cronies of Bush administration officials were being awarded sweet no-bid contracts. To make the process more open, the U.S. government opened a public website, an "eBay for military contracts," as it is snarkily called herein. When 20-something David Packouz (Miles Teller) runs into his old junior-high-school friend in Miami in 2005, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) is making a killing on small-potatoes contracts through this site, jobs way too small for the mega-defense corps to pay any attention to, but ideal for a hustler like Diveroli. "I live on crumbs like a rat," Diveroli says proudly. But those crumbs are worth millions. He invites Packouz — who has been struggling as a massage therapist and part-time bedsheet salesman — to come work for him.
They make a lot of money together.
"God bless Dick Cheney's America," an onscreen title card notes. The entirety of War Dogs drips with that sort of meta sarcasm, contrasting the rah-rah triumph of the American dream of Diveroli's entrepreneurism with the total lack of conscience required for such success. The ostensible legality of Diveroli's business doesn't even pretend to disguise the profound illegalities of much of what he does: one of the most entertaining/horrifying sequences in the film involves these two guys literally running guns in a beat-up truck across the most dangerous parts of the Iraqi desert, contravening who knows how many local, U.S., and international laws, in order to fulfill a U.S. Army contract to supply sidearms to the Baghdad police department.
Much of the movie is like this: appalling (deliberately so) and amusing (also deliberately so, but with a caustic moue) in equal measure. Diveroli is clearly a sociopath, and Hill — in his Moneyball, Wolf of Wall Street Oscar-nominated-actor mode — is deeply creepy, all empty eyes and hollow chortle. Teller often can be unpleasantly smug onscreen, but there's none of that here; oh, his Packouz is not a nice guy, but Teller manages to make us believe that the character genuinely sees himself as a decent guy just trying to get by in the world.
The weakest part of the film is the apparently purely fictional wife (Ana de Armas) it gives Packouz, seemingly solely so that he can have someone to lie to again and again about what he's doing at work. It's the only element with which the movie falls into disappointing cliché. Still, the movie slowly builds up an intriguing portrait of levels of narcissistic manipulation, dribbling down from Diveroli to Packouz to all the rest of the mugs of the world they consider themselves above.
We laugh at it so we don't cry. ♦