As Efraim Diveroli, the real-life 22-year-old Miami arms dealer who in 2007 finagled a $300 million contract with the Pentagon, War Dogs star Jonah Hill turns himself into a tank. He charges through scenes broad-shouldered and bronze-skinned, his crisp button-down a bulletproof white. His face has become so round and imposing that it’s conquered borders well past his jawline. The only details you see are eyes and a mouth — which, as a shrewd, fast-talking sociopath, is all he needs. His Efraim shifts accents and religions, depending on the customer. After sobbing about his fake hospitalized kid to mollify an irate Army officer, Efraim unironically turns to his business associate David (Miles Teller) and groans, “Do you believe this guy?” Wherever his heart is, it’s buried beyond reach.
War Dogs is as close to the truth as a sniper who nicks his target’s toe. In photos, the actual Diveroli appears to have been a gym rat. Perhaps he’s embarrassed that director Todd Phillips’s (The Hangover) biopic re-imagines him as a guy who can’t get laid without paying. Or perhaps, as the film argues, he has no emotions at all, only needs: the need to make as much money as possible, the need to look tough, the need to be a 21st-century Scarface — a dream Phillips triple-underscores by having Efraim incessantly quote the movie, hang a still of Al Pacino’s character blasting a gun on his office wall, and, finally, mimic him with his own AK-47 in less-than-glamorous Albania. (And in case we don’t get it, Phillips captures the pose in slow-motion, twice.)
Phillips has made a copy of a copy, a brotastic toast to capitalism that steals from all the other movies that stole from Scarface and Goodfellas. There must be something in the Vodka Red Bulls, because in the last five years, Hollywood keeps making these shiny, self-mocking, overly narrated flicks about dudes who play with big money in baseball, penny stocks, or sub-prime mortgages, which pepper the screen with numbers and factoids and star either Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, or both.
War Dogs might be the first to boast a sociopath. At least The Wolf of Wall Street‘s Jordan Belfort tried to love his wife and kids. But the movie is, by its very subject, more sociopathic. Here, people are actually dying, a fact the script desperately tries to avoid. When Efraim finally is forced to see a corpse, he shrugs, and the film barrels on. Phillips seems more outraged by the cost of the War on Terror, which according to General David Petraeus’s chief logistician spent over $20 billion a year just on air-conditioning.
“War is the economy,” chirps Efraim. He’s full of catchphrases, one of which is his fluttery giggle that sounds like an exhaling balloon. His laugh gets one of the movie’s only big chuckles, but by the sixth time, the audience sits stone-faced. Since wrapping The Hangover trilogy, Phillips’s creativity hasn’t developed — it’s devolved. Every cut feels like a fist-pound, and the soundtrack wails with that same mordant classic rock. He uses global chaos for fake gravitas, an excuse to shoot Hill and Teller boasting about profits in a strip club before two disembodied dancers literally butt in.
Cuban starlet Ana de Armas, a ripe Scarlett Johansson–esque beauty who was electric in the otherwise goofy Keanu Reeves thriller Knock Knock, is saddled with a lousy part as Teller’s mealy wife, who exists only to pad around in panties, bear babies, and represent sweet-faced domesticity. She’s the only actress who gets more than one scene, not that her character even merits being written. It’s clear Phillips can’t think of a thing for a girl to do on screen besides support her man, whether that’s forgiving Teller for lying about a road trip through Iraq or Jamie Chung simpering that she doesn’t mind Ed Helms’s Mike Tyson tattoo. By the time Bradley Cooper shows up to hoot, “That’s why I like the arms business — no women!” Phillips expects a golf clap for acknowledging his problem. I’ll let him off the hook this time. If I were an actress, I’d stay away from this movie, too.
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