Quick - name the last really successful political satire? Was it Wag the Dog? Man of the Year? American Dreamz? Primary Colors? Perhaps you have to go back as far as the Watergate among nuns fun known as Nasty Habits. Whatever the case, the War in Iraq and the Bush Administration’s policies toward same should be rife for some rib-tickling ridicule. Of course, some of the decisions and resulting failures are sad/funny enough to be their own pragmatic parodies. Yet instead of taking on the Commander in Chief and his wayward conservatism, most films about the current situation in the Middle East have focused on the military, and how it turns dedicated voluntaries into outright, detestable villains.
Now comes John Cusack (himself the star of last year’s homeland drama Grace is Gone) and his self-scribed effort War, Inc. His focus isn’t the military machine or the misguided application of same by the government. Nor is he really interested in taking on the whole WMD/selling of the conflict to an easily brainwashed American people. Instead, this obvious lampoon has Halliburton, and one of its former officers, Vice President Dick Cheney, in its sites. Sometimes, the targets are so ripe and readily set up that the laughs come often and organically. At other instances, Cusack and his fellow screenwriters Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser miss the mark completely.
After a particularly tough assignment, professional hitman Brand Houser is mandated by the President’s Second in Command to travel to the fictional foreign country of Turagistan. There, he will hook up with a fellow female operative and together they will try to assassinate the CEO of an international competitor. Seems the evil Tamerlane conglomerate wants all the juicy defense/rebuilding contracts for themselves, and needs Omar Shariff out of the way. Houser will accomplish this via a combination trade show and wedding. The convention will showcase Tamerlane’s “Brand America” wares. The nuptials find foreign pop sensation Yonica Babyyeah getting hitched. All the while, the hired killer must avoid the demons from this past, as well as the probing questions of investigative reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen.
It is often said that the key to a really good send-up is an innate knowledge of the subject matter being spoofed, followed by an even keener insight into how to formally deconstruct it. Somewhere between its ambition and its actuality, War, Inc. forgot this formula. Instead of offering a Dr. Strangelove-like look at how Iraq has become a morass of misguided and laughable decisions, Cusack and clan go for the easy joke - the constipated VP, the oversexed pop ingénue, the tough as nails journalist, the slightly ditzy yet very effective personal assistant. That War, Inc. casts competent actors like Dan Aykroyd, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, and the star’s sister Joan argues for its would-be success.
But then documentarian Joshua Seftel steps behind the lens and shows absolutely no gift for comedy. His idea of wit is to overwork a gag until we can no longer stand the sentiment. Cusack’s hitman uses hot sauce as kind of a calming curative. It helps him focus, as well as shut out the constant voices thrashing in his head. We are supposed to view these scenes as comically insightful. While they hint at horrors, the interaction in these flashbacks suggests humor. They’re not funny. Similarly, every time the Cusacks interact, there’s a spark of screwball goofiness to what they accomplish. Yet Seftel isn’t secure enough to explore all avenues of this idea. Instead, he makes do with little flashes of brilliance here and there.
The rest of the time, War, Inc. wades through ideas that are more than self-evident. Is it really surprising that foreign men mimic hip-hop and rap in their goofy ‘gansta’ attitudes, or that Turgistan’s so-called Emerald City (standing in for Baghdad’s Green Zone) is the site of more bombings and violence than in the rest of the nation? One moment, we see a terrifically tasteless chorus line featuring recent amputees. The next, a pro-Peace, Love and Understanding platform is being forced down our throats. The politics of War, Inc. are not problematic so much as pedestrian. There’s nothing new in embracing the anti-conservative screed to show how off kilter the country really is. Yet this is the narrative’s main selling point - and very few will be buying.
Still, there is stuff in War, Inc. that one can enjoy. It’s fun to see Popeye’s Chicken as the foreign franchise du jour, complete with orders for ‘extra spicy all white meat’, and Ms. Duff, a long way away from her own Hannah Montana moment in the sun, is superb as the ethnically unclear (and ambiguously accented) Yonica. Granted, her song parodies are as lame as the actual tunes that brought her into the limelight in the first place, but it’s a hoot to hear Lizzie McGuire swearing like a sailor. In fact, it seems like a great deal of this movie is a mere one or two steps away from being masterful. That those strides are occasionally a million mirth miles away is a sad commentary on all involved.
It seems that, somewhere along the line, John Cusack has gone from accomplished actor with a high degree of industry cred to a descending, desperate star trying anything to realign his passing power. Even with the success of last year’s 1408, his career arc has definitely taken a downturn. War, Inc. won’t help. Sure, it will sell to a chosen few audience members who don’t mind their humor ladled out in oversized doses of blatancy. The rest, however, will wonder if the situation in Iraq is all but entertainment-proof, incapable of sustaining any movie, be it drama or comedy. Of course, War, Inc. doesn’t give the humor side of the dispute a fighting chance. It’s a pretty one sided argument - just like the film itself.