Monday, June 9, 2008

War, Inc.

By Elise Nakhnikian

Nobody plays slightly cynical sincerity better than John Cusack. But just because he does wry self-awareness so well doesn’t mean he can handle any kind of comedy. And judging by War, Inc., he should stay away from satire.

Cusack has called this antiwar farce a kind of unofficial sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank. There are certainly plenty of similarities between the two black comedies, starting with the fact that Cusack shares the writing credit (High Fidelity is the only other movie he cowrote.) In both, Cusack plays a mercenary who has lost his taste for killing but is too depressed to stop – until falling in love jars him out of his funk. But Blank is a tangy little sweet tart of a movie, an offbeat tale of redemption and love, while War, Inc. is one of those movies whose gears you hear loudly grinding away as it tries to do too many things, doing none of them well.

War, Inc. takes place in the fictional country of Turaqistan – or what’s left of it. Tamerlane, a fictional conglomerate that has made the US government into a mere corporate “subdivision,” has nearly pulverized the place, waging “the first war ever to be 100 percent outsourced to private enterprise.”

Brand Hauser (a dead-eyed Cusack), who works for the corporation, has been sent to dispatch a local politician. His cover is to pose as the director of a huge trade show, Brand USA, that’s being staged in Turaqistan’s capital to sell the locals on the American way.

It’s a ripe subject for satire, and I was rooting for Cusack to nail it, but the timing is off in this tone-deaf story. Cusack told one interviewer that his inspirations included Dr. Strangelove and the Marx Brothers. Films like this remind us how delicate a balance of anarchy, outrage, and pure silliness is needed to make an antiwar masterpiece like Strangelove or Duck Soup.

A bit in War, Inc. involving a chorus line of amputees, for instance, feels more creepy than funny, thanks to the heavy-handed narration that accompanies it, a chirpy paen to the wonders of the corporation whose bombs blew off the limbs and whose prosthetics replaced them. And another clever concept, the glorified screening room where journalists “experience” the war every morning by watching videos accompanied by Disney-like special effects, soon degenerates into slapstick as one particularly gung-ho participant gets way too far into her daily dose of virtual reality.

The filmmakers don’t seem to trust their audience to get anything unless they write it out in caps and underline it. Signs and other set dressing that might be funny if they were left in the background for us to discover in passing are hauled out front and center, the action stopping while the camera zooms in on them. And a nightmarish father-daughter dilemma that Soapdish managed to make painfully funny lacks all subtlety here, playing out as simply mawkish and icky.

The filmmakers also seem to lack faith that audiences would come out for an anti-war farce that wasn’t wrapped in yet another tale of a lost man who finds himself through love. That’s too bad, since the dissolute Hauser’s pursuit and conquest of Marisa Tomei’s Natalie, a hard-hitting and (self-)righteous journalist, is improbable and hackneyed.

The actors are badly directed, too. Ben Kingsley, who should have been able to play the heavy in his sleep, is laughably unthreatening with his badly faked Southern accent and his conveniently timed on-camera confession. Cusack’s sister Joan, one of her generation’s most gifted comediennes, seems to have been airlifted in from some alternate universe – and pumped full of amphetamines en route – to play his assistant, popping her eyes and straining her neck like a refugee from a minstrel show. Tomei is simply miscast as Natalie, though the real problem is in how the role was written.

Somebody’s wet dream of liberal-lefty investigative reporter, Natalie is a doe-eyed young thing so luscious and pure that men fall for her like dominoes. Lining up an interview? No problem. Just give the girl a stick to beat off all those would-be sources.

Hillary Duff comes off better than most of her elders, but even her shaded performance and innate likeability couldn’t get me to give a damn about her poor-little-rich-girl character, a grossly oversexed teenage pop princess named Yonica Babyyeah. Yes, even the names in War, Inc. try too hard.

After a while, the whole thing starts to feel like a spoof cooked up by a couple of talented middle school kids in their backyard. Even the story’s internal logic sometimes gets muddled. Dude! you want to ask. What happened to that cobra Hauser was milking when Yonica comes in his office? When Hauser’s pretending to be a customer at that Popeye’s that’s a front for his boss, why does he blow his cover by leaping over the counter after going through all the trouble of placing an order? And when he shoots those guys at a bar, why does everyone just ignore him while he walks out, as if nothing had happened?

Then again, never mind. I really don’t care.

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