Truth may be stranger than fiction, but that hasn't stopped the makers of "War Dogs" from trying to tame that strangeness into submission. Set during the final years of the George W. Bush administration, this slipshod comic thriller purports to tell the wild and crazy tale of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, two upstart war profiteers from Miami Beach who exploited the U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and temporarily achieved big-time status in the international arms trade.
It's a scattershot, fitfully funny Hollywood treatment of a real-life American hustle, one that might have been well served by the likes of David O. Russell, a master farceur who already has one terrific Mideast war romp under his belt ("Three Kings"). Instead it wound up in the hands of Todd Phillips, who has styled this passion project along the aggressively familiar lines of a buddy comedy, right down to the casting of Jonah Hill as the loathsome, larger-than-life star of the show.
It wasn't a bad idea on paper. As the director of "The Hangover" movies, "Due Date," "Old School" and "Road Trip," Phillips has earned his reputation as a specialist in the many varieties of male misbehavior. As an extreme example of what can happen when two scheming dudes have too much time and weed on their hands, "War Dogs" upholds that lowbrow comic tradition even as it pushes it in a more topical, grown-up direction. Adapted from a 2011 Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson (who later wrote a book on the subject, "Arms and the Dudes"), this is Phillips' first picture in a while to sell itself on more than just lines of coke and decapitated zoo animals. (It contains some of the former, but none of the latter.) It's selling itself on the novel idea that it actually has a terrific, rip-roaring story to tell.
Which it would, anyway, if Phillips didn't keep weighing it down with borrowed moves and banal ideas. After one of those pointless how-did-we-get-here prologues, the movie flashes back three years to 2005, around the time that David (Miles Teller), an amiable college dropout, is stuck working as a massage therapist in Miami. After testing out a lame-brained venture selling high-end bedsheets to retirement homes, he gets a much more lucrative lesson in supply and demand when he's lured into business with his old yeshiva classmate Efraim (Hill). A genial con artist with a demonic chuckle and "Scarface"-fueled delusions of grandeur, Efraim heads up his own company, AEY Inc., and has already made a small killing peddling weapons to the U.S. military.
Phillips (who wrote the script with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic) briefly sketches in the particulars of how the government's "war on terror," like most armed conflicts throughout history, became its own monstrous economy. Specifically, we learn how the Bush-Cheney administration, after taking heat for farming out no-bid weapons contracts to major players like Halliburton and Lockheed Martin, opened up the field to just about anyone with enough gumption and access to the government's FedBizOpps listings. With their scrappy, low-overhead operation, Efraim and David soon find themselves outbidding their bigger, more experienced competitors, even landing a highly coveted $300-million deal to supply the U.S.-backed Afghan National Army.
Efraim's personal dislike for Bush is utterly immaterial; as he pragmatically notes, "It's not about being pro-war, it's about being pro-money." But if he and his partner have no meaningful politics to speak of, the same could be said of "War Dogs," which gleefully encourages its characters' bumbling incompetence as well as their astounding moral idiocy.
Before long the two are rolling in dough and getting in way over their heads, whether they're navigating the treacherous 500-mile road from Amman to Baghdad with a truck full of Italian-made Berettas (the movie's most entertaining stretch) or flying to an Albanian storehouse where 100 million rounds of Cold War-era AK-47 ammo lie in wait. That deal is arranged for them by a notorious, high-powered arms dealer briefly played by an unsmiling Bradley Cooper, jetting in and out of the movie as though part of some frequent-flyer program for "Hangover" alums.
All these lethally absurd (if heavily fictionalized) complications should have been proper grist for a raucous, meaty chronicle of greed, corruption and American enterprise gone hideously awry. At times Phillips' movie nods in the direction of Martin Scorsese's nauseatingly brilliant "The Wolf of Wall Street," in which Hill played a riotous second banana, as well as Adam McKay's "The Big Short," another example of a mainstream comedy director shifting gears and tackling a recent political outrage.
But in the end, there's no outrage in "War Dogs" — no lacerating insight, no gonzo satiric energy, nothing more than warmed-over cynicism and some mild titters at the spectacle of boys being boys under uniquely deadly circumstances. The filmmaking is surprisingly lazy, even listless, stuffed with obvious music cues and unnecessary chapter breaks that merely add to the lurching, episodic rhythm. Despite some welcome changes of scenery courtesy of Jordan and Iraq (actually Morocco) and Albania (actually Romania), the movie can't build up a head of comic steam.
Much of Teller's performance is consumed by a subplot involving David's domestic woes, which include a neglected child and a long-suffering girlfriend (Ana de Armas) who can no longer swallow his stream of lies. (Here, as in "The Hangover" movies, women are little more than beautiful scolds.) But then, David is just along for the ride anyway as Efraim's lackey and foil, and as their two-bit operation begins to crumble around them, there's an unmistakable dark pleasure in seeing Hill devolve into a hurricane of self-centered petulance and dishonesty, untethered to even the slightest bid for the audience's sympathy.
It's worth noting that "War Dogs" was made without the participation of the real Efraim Diveroli, who in May filed a lawsuit alleging that the filmmakers and Warner Bros. had misappropriated his life story. He has a point, if not necessarily the one he has in mind.
MPAA rating: R, for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: In general release