WHEN POLITICS and culture satirize themselves, what is there left for satire to do? This is the problem faced by "War, Inc.," a broad lampooning of political corruption and war profiteering co-written by John Cusack (who also stars and produces) with novelist Mark Leyner and screenwriter Jeremy Pikser, who deal with it by putting their thinly veiled Dick Cheney stand-in on the toilet and the video phone at the same time.
"War, Inc.'s" laudable antecedents are many, but then, once upon a time, it was possible to watch a movie like "Dr. Strangelove" and have an eye-opening, revelatory, even epiphanic experience. Not so much anymore, now that culture and politics are no longer cloaked in a facade of seriousness and unimpeachability.
Doing what they can with a modest budget (which limits "War, Inc." in much the same way that a small budget limited Mike Judge's brilliant but buried "Idiocracy"), Cusack et al. gamely take on a trillion-dollar subject and let their dry, deadpan fury fly. "War, Inc." may be fueled by a galloping sense of outrage but, as you would expect from Cusack, its tone never rises above an inside-voice.
Cusack plays Hauser, a moody hit man hired by the former vice president of the United States (Dan Aykroyd) to travel to the fictional country of Turaqistan and assassinate a Middle Eastern oil minister named Omar Sharif before he builds a pipeline through the region.
If this measure seems a little drastic it's because in "War, Inc." America's only interests are its commercial interests. The government is now a subsidiary of Tamerlane, a corporation headed by the former vice president, and Americans living in Turaqistan (journalists especially) remain inside a protective zone known as Emerald City.
Sound familiar? It's meant to, at least some of it is, although in a writer's statement included in the production notes Leyner expresses a desire for audiences to "see this movie in some sort of context-less, gravity-free environment." The gravity-free part might actually be easier to swing, given how heavily the movie draws from reality.
Soon after arriving in Emerald City, Hauser meets Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), the lone reporter in the country who has declined having a chip implanted in her neck in order to receive the "implanted journalistic experience," which is accompanied by a crude virtual reality theme park ride. In one scene, Hauser embarks on a rescue mission to an off-limits town called Felafel, where he encounters frantic American soldiers, shooting at anything that moves, demanding to know who's in charge.
Turaqistan is run by a shadowy figure known only as the Viceroy, whom Hauser meets by going through a bunker fronted by a Popeyes Chicken. Inside the vault-like structure, the Viceroy protects his identity Wizard of Oz style by remaining hidden behind an electronic screen that morphs every few seconds from one pop iconic face to another -- Ronald Reagan, Pamela Anderson, John Wayne, a dolphin, the Fonz.
While in Turaqistan, Hauser is to pretend that he's an events producer in charge of the trade show Brand USA, which will culminate with the televised wedding of teenage Middle Eastern pop star Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff) and the thuggish yet ridiculously pop gangster-ized son of a warlord. As Hauser falls for Hegalhuzen and valiantly fends off the advances of Yonica (whom he inexplicably considers repellent), he finds it harder to reconcile his beliefs with what he is trying to accomplish. Never mind that he's a CIA hit man. It's what he's a CIA hit man for that's eating him.
As he confesses to the consoling voice on the other end of his GuideStar navigational system, "I feel like a morally inverted character from a Celine novel." GuideStar empathizes. So do I. Somehow, what starts as a series of cheap shots in a barrel develops into something more, thanks largely to warm, engaging performances by Cusack and Tomei. "War, Inc." is both right-on and somehow off, but it gets points for trying.
"War, Inc." MPAA rating: R for violence, language and brief sexual material. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. In limited release.