Once, American comedies concerned underdog heroes who challenged the status quo and seized the territory of the upper-class characters who thought they were in control. Slobs vs. snobs. During the wartime administration of the lesser President Bush, the wealthy thoroughly dominated the culture, occupying America the way the Army patrolled Baghdad and transforming the economy into an elevator that moved all the money up to the people who needed it the least.
So the 1 percent also moved to the center stage of mainstream comedies, most notably in director Todd Phillips’s Hangover trilogy, a triumphalist celebration of rich, white douchebaggery in which a group of down-punching twats defend their status against shrill women, foreign weirdos, and lowlife criminals. Phillips pulls that thread even further in War Dogs, his attempt at more dramatic, reality-based comedy. It’s the ostensibly true story of a pair of twentysomething bros who became wealthy arms merchants in 2008 by selling weapons to the U.S. military.
That’s not to suggest that David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) are fictional; their story was first reported by Guy Lawson in a sprawling 2011 Rolling Stone feature. But they might as well be. The film’s tidy script, co-written by Phillips, is transparently constructed from the beats of better films and assembled into the “Save the Cat” screenwriting format that dominates mainstream Hollywood output. The setup, narrated by Teller, echoes Goodfellas kind of the way the Monkees echoed A Hard Day’s Night. The trajectories of its characters are telegraphed by the enormous poster of Tony Montana that dominates Efraim’s office.
After the failure of his business venture selling Egyptian cotton sheets to nursing homes, part-time masseur David partners with his charismatic childhood friend Efraim, who drives a fancy car, carries a fat roll of hundred-dollar bills, and snorts cocaine by the pound. He explains his income source to David: After the media outed the government favoritism of Dick Cheney–connected military contractors, Congress required the Department of Defense to solicit bids on weaponry from the open market; the Pentagon complied with an eBay-like website for weapons suppliers. Efraim works as a middleman, buying guns and gear on the cheap from a global network of sources and arranging delivery straight to Middle East combat theaters.
David learns the trade and takes a 30 percent stake in the company. Their big break comes after an order of Berettas bound for Iraq gets stuck in Jordan; when a general threatens to blacklist their company, David and Efraim personally smuggle the guns over the border. This business success eventually draws the attention of Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), a creepy arms merchant on the terror watch list who wants to use the pair to move a gargantuan shipment of Chinese-made bullets to Afghanistan. The deal will make them ridiculously rich.
The film’s breezy drive and bursts of comic energy largely divert attention from the flatness of its world and characters. David’s wife, Iz (Ana de Armas), an underdeveloped, person-like construct typical of the women in Phillips’s movies, serves basically as a moral traffic light, registering either warm approval or emphatic denunciation of David’s actions. But even David, the viewpoint character, is barely developed.
Good news, though. Here’s the part where we get to talk about Jonah Hill, who heaves War Dogs onto his back the way those osteomuscularly terrifying World’s Strongest Man competitors carry refrigerators and absolutely tears past everyone else on the field, leaving his co-stars and director coughing in a Road Runnerish wake of dust. When people tell you War Dogs is good — like, really good — what they mean is that Hill’s performance is nuanced, funny, and sharply observed. It doesn’t hurt that Efraim is the script’s best and only complete character. What is his favorite film? What does he like to eat? Does he have any hobbies? The film offers answers to all three: Scarface, cocaine, sex with hookers.
A charming, disarming persuader, Efraim figures out exactly what other people need him to be and then embodies it. To a rich uncle who invests in his business, he’s a devout Jew and a hardworking entrepreneur. To David, he’s a great friend and a straight-shooting business partner. In reality, Efraim is none of those things — he’s a coke-snorting libertine with epic appetites, a self-dealing liar, betrayer of friends and family, and an unapologetic cheat. Phillips’s heaviest challenge was to convincingly show Efraim’s transformation from a crowd-pleasing scoundrel into the third act’s chilly sociopath, and the film’s greatest pleasure is watching Hill execute it.
The downfall of David and Efraim is preordained and satisfyingly related, but the director can’t quite bring himself to go full Henry Hill with a downbeat ending. The script delivers an unambiguously fictitious and cheesy epilogue in which Phillips muse Cooper visits David like a direful angel, offering a final benediction in the form of a briefcase full of cash. A better director would have dumped it in the editing bay or exaggerated for satirical effect. Does Phillips realize it’s the same ending as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? The salvation of money provides a Bush-era redemptive coda that might make Dick Cheney, swaddled in Egyptian cotton sheets, feel the racing of his meager pulse.