Making the transition from comedy to more serious films can be a difficult job for a comedy director. So most of the time comedy directors just do it half way by telling a somewhat serious story with a degree of lightness and looseness — something Adam McKay did very well last year with The Big Short. With War Dogs, director Todd Phillips, best known for The Hangover trilogy finds himself doing much of the same thing .
Based on a 2011 Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson called Arms and the Dudes, War Dogs follows the story of a twenty-something college dropout and massage therapist David Packhouz (Miles Teller) who gets offered the chance to make big money selling weapons to the U.S. military during the Iraq War by his shady childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). The joke, at least for a while, is that it’s all perfectly legal, because the business of national security has basically become a business. The con is that these two are glorified hacker opportunists who only pretend to run a respectable company. But then, to keep it going, they have to start cutting corners, and once they start they can’t stop, since the money is just too good…
I gotta say War Dogs really reminded me of The Wolf of Wall Street. In fact a more accurate way to describe it would be: ‘The Wolf of Wall Street lite’, and while film borrows heavily from Scorsese, it also stand on it’s own largely in part to the looseness Phillips brings to the table with his experience in comedy. Like The Wolf of Wall Street, one of the reasons this works so well is because it celebrates the cesspool of greed these characters thrive in. It’s a story of rise-and-fall where you actually question if the fall was worth it, because the rise was THAT fun.
Miles Teller is an immensely talented actor, but he isn’t given a lot of room to flex his acting muscles with a pretty thankless role that could have just as easily have been played by anyone else. That job is left purely to Jonah Hill who is on top form as Teller’s cunning partner Efraim Diveroli. In the last few years, Jonah Hill has really come into his own as an actor who can stand on his own against the best of the business. And his comedic prowess is primarily what has catapulted him to the top. I think he brings a surprising amount of nuance to the role which I wouldn’t have initially expected. And there’s a certain charisma to the way the plays this charming, greedy and sociopathic gunrunner in Diveroli that’s really enjoyable to watch. That laugh!
I’m not going to say there aren’t problems with the film. There are. But I think I was able to look past most of them because of the things I liked about the film. That said, you do feel the film could have worked without Ana de Armas who plays Teller’s girlfriend and feels little more than a plot device and a moral traffic signal the writers instituted to forcefully give the film some sort of a moral backbone. And towards the end, the film does begin to lose it’s swagger and get somewhat predictable.
But that said, I enjoyed the heck out of War Dogs. It’s easily one of the most straight-up funny and entertaining films I’ve seen this year that also has a somewhat serious side to it and feels rooted in real-world events. Watching Jonah Hill’s hilarious performance is enough of a reason to see it alone.