Friday, May 23, 2008

"War, Inc." -- * *

I try my best to not enter a film with a bias one way or the other, but I'm going to come clean here. When a ballsy, over-the-top, absurdist satire taking on Halliburton, policies in Iraq and war profiteering hits theaters, it kind of has me at hello. Factor into the equation that said film is John Cusack's self-professed "non-sequel sequel" to dark comedy-action-romance "Grosse Pointe Blank," one of my top 5 all-time favorite films, and you have a movie that seemingly has "Rob Scheer" as its target demographic, with everyone else a distant second. So it's with a heavy heart and a sulking disposition that I must report that the described movie, "War, Inc.," if not quite as bad as the buzz, doesn't really work at all. I really, really wanted to like this movie, and really, really tried to cut it any slack I could throughout. Sadly, the points it makes are obvious, delivery is with a sledgehammer, and the ideas are significantly more clever than the execution in almost every respect. I've read comparisons to Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales," which makes sense, considering that both are fairly out-there, messy, rambling satires inspired by our country's foreign policies and both are generally regarded as failures; however, I think "Southland Tales" is so fascinating, compelling and absorbingly strange on its own terms that the comparison really doesn't hold. "War, Inc." is ambitious, original and admirable enough to never be less than watchable, but much of it just leaves you groaning or shaking your head.

Cusack stars as contract killer Brand Houser, who works for the Halliburton-esque Tamerlane Corporation, whose CEO is a Cheney-esque former vice-president (Dan Aykroyd). Tamerlane is in the midst of paying for the current war in Turaqistan, the first war to be completely fought by corporate-financed batallions. Sent to Turaqistan, along with a hyper-efficient associate (Joan Cusack), Hauser must kill a local leader named Omar Sharif, because said leader wants some of his country's oil profits. Once there, his cover is to act as if he's producing a local trade show, and he must deal with liberal reporter Natalie Hagelhuzen (Marisa Tomei), who's attempting to figure out what's really going on. Making things more complicated is the arrive of Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff), the Middle Eastern equivalent of Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson, who will be married to the son of an powerful local oil man as the finale to Hauser's "show." All the while, Hauser keeps having flashbacks to his wife/daughter's murder at the hands of a powerful Southern assassin Walken (Ben Kingsley).

I think, if anything, I'm being a little generous. I found the film endurable and interesting enough, a noble failure, but i have difficulty imaging anyone all out "liking" this thing, not with this screenplay (written by Cusack, Jeremy Pikser and Mark Leyner). It's hard to quibble with what Cusack's trying to do, but this doesn't feel like the Cusack who co-wrote "Grosse Pointe Blank" or "High Fidelity." It seems like the Cusack who went on an uber-serious angry diatribe on Bill Maher, wrote a drama with all the political ideas he was angry about and passed it along to his hack screenwriter friends to toss some jokes in (in fact, I'd guess this isn't far from the reality of what happened). The smarted-up, highbrow one-liners, such as one about Anderson Cooper's lineage, seems as if the movie's targeted specifically at a very niche audience: the most elitist 5% of The Nation subscribers and Air America listeners. While audience-excluding, this isn't a problem in and of itself, but it seems to be flaunting its political superiority for its own sake and to no particular purpose. And as someone who understood said jokes, they have a success rate that's awfully close to zero.

The gold standard (and obvious inspiration) here is "Dr. Strangelove," and while that masterpiece could never be matched, I liked the fact that the makers at work here were trying to create their own little version. But the film's political elements are largely pointless and repetitive, occasionally toothless, and for much of the movie, they're even forgotten about. So, Cusack seems intent on delivering a one-note diatribe. Fine, whatever. But then why does he keep getting distracted with this Yonica subplot? There's more focus on the assassination/Yonica/Natalie stuff than any political statements of any resonance, and on top of it just not being very interesting, it's just as comically tone deaf as the rest. The whole aimless middle section is dully stagnant and pretty much abandons about its politics. I didn't mind the ridiculous situations taking place-- that's the nature of absurdist satire-- but it's hard to ignore how unfunny they all are.

The ideas are significantly more clever than their execution (e.g. journalism-enhancing implants reporters receive upon entering a war "simulator," and a bit with tap-dancing amputees), and some gags are so stale and lame, it's mind-boggling how they made their way into a satire so willfully highbrow (one of Yonica's suggestive songs features the repeated line "I want to blow you... up!"). The best joke in the whole movie turns out to be simply Duff's character's name. Making the proceedings even less coherent is the fact that the movie doesn't decide if it wants us to look at these characters as real people or caricatures; And with all this bitter cynicism and satirization being flung around, we get a happy ending.... whuh? It's just a mess all-around, and one that can't decide what it wants to be; it doesn't mix/blend genres and tones, it awkwardly and jarringly jumps between them.

While most of the country is reveling in their Indiana Jones nostalgia, it was nice for me to see John Cusack playing a version of Martin Blank and still shooting people, karate-chopping and struggling with moral conflict again 11 years later. Both John and Joan, and Aykroyd are all "GPB" veterans, and while John's an assassin again and Joan once again spends most of her screentime befitted with a receptionist's headset, this time Kingsley fills the shoes of the "Grocer"-type character Aykroyd played last time around. There are numerous recalls to "Grosse Pointe Blank" and it breaks my heart a little bit that Cusack's return to the character-type/genre/material is such a missed opportunity. Still, personally I got a mild kick out of Cusack's little nods to the 1997 class; he even throws in an intentionally reminiscent scene where his object of desire inconveniently witnesses him stabbing a foe in the head with an unconventional weapon.

A great cast has been assembled for this misfire, and amazingly, none of them appear to be slumming or going-through-the-motions. John Cusack has done this sleepwalking-through-existence thing a bit too much for my taste, but for understandable reasons, he actually seems to be involved in this performance and not simply switched off (e.g.: "Must Love Dogs"). Hauser (white skunk spot in hair) says "If you really knew me, you'd despise me even more than you do," but, and maybe it's just my carried-over Martin Blank love, the way Cusack plays him, he's never that unlikeable a guy from the get-go, so it doesn't seem like he's experienced the progression the movie wants us to feel. Joan will probably be too irritating, familiar and over-the-top for some, and she's blatantly trying to punch-up the material with her over-emphatic delivery, but she still provided pretty much the only moments that made me giggle, and it reminded me she needs another "In & Out"-esque showcase performance. Tomei does her best to try to deliver the most fully-formed person on screen, but the character never materializes into something interesting. Duff is having some fun dirtying up her shiny, perky, white blonde girl image, but it'd be a stretch to call her "good." Meanwhile, Kingsley (with a particularly bad American accent) and Aykroyd barely register in their two-or-three-scene appearances as wacky, "eccentric" characters.

Last year, Cusack starred in a small, moving (if a bit dull) film called "Grace is Gone" that dealt with the toll this war has taken on the homefront, and this filmic one-two punch shows that it's a subject he cares passionately about; but while this is easily the more incensed project of the two, it's also the less effective one. At the end of the day, "War, Inc." doesn't offer any particular insight, nor is it funny or especially coherent, so it's difficult to amass what would be left to recommend. Having seen the movie, it now makes sense why it's been kicked around the release schedule for two years before finally being dumped in two theaters against the potentially-biggest movie of the year. It's well-intentioned as can be, but even those who agree with every ideological point *cough* may have difficulty staying awake, let alone laughing. The direction by Josh Seftel isn't very good, but it can't be solely blamed; the writing is weak all around, darting between overwritten and underwritten, and the one-sided observations aren't even particularly sharp or cutting. It pains me to say this, as "War, Inc." was one of my most anticipated films of 2008, but Cusack and company never really find anything to say amidst all this chaos, and combined with a lack of laughs, it adds up to a whole lot of nothing.

"War, Inc." opens today in two theaters nationwide, one in New York (the Angelika) and one in Los Angeles (the Landmark).


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