Todd Phillips is one of the defining comedic directors of our time. You might not love everything he’s done – I sure don’t – but his broad-faced dissections of male relationships in times of trouble and tragedy are, well, deeply ingrained into the pop culture consciousness. So, what happens when he turns the corner and strides down the garbage-strewn alley of dark comedy? I don’t know.
From the outside, War Dogs looks like any other Todd Phillips film – there’s a couple of man-children, a road trip of sorts, a lot of bad behavior that ends in some sort of emotional, though zany, resolution. And, to be honest, it is, but War Dogs, to its credit, pushes Phillip’s almost two-decade long “analysis” of man’s never-ending attempt to, well, grow up into the darkest corner of his directing career. The film follows the true story of Efram Divoroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), a duo of Miami-twenty-somethings who get in too deep in the, uh, international arms game. It has all the touchstones of a Phillip’s film (That Hangover Trilogy Phillips that’s full of flash and wealth, not his more humble, more abstract Old School self) – slow-mo driving, slo-mo shooting, a male relationship that develops and changes and breaks and breaks again over the course of the film. Phillips’ films are ostensibly about growing up in the most minute of shades, and Teller’s character Packouz, does just that, creeping his way upwards from a newly-married massage therapist, unhappy with his life of day-to-day drudgery, into a multi-million dollar arms dealer with the law on his tail. Both the actors stand out here, Teller continues to impress at playing a certain type of every-bro, the cool guy you always knew might have a little more under the surface. But truly it’s Jonah Hill’s film, as Phillips let his character run wild, a sort of overweight cartoon in action, his dialogue peppered with a helium-induced titter. He’s the Devil to Packouz’s “angel” and it’s a strong performance that picks up the film when it starts to drag. Phillips does good work here, and if this is his transition into darker territory it bodes well for what comes next. Though this can be said, wrapping your film about the production and illegal sales of guns into a comedy, no matter how dark it is, is a tricky prospect. The comedy allows the average viewer, regardless of their gun politics, into the ring, but also weakens the statement – guns are bad – that the director is trying to make. At times, though again to Phillip’s credit not often, the film wants to go for an easy joke over a more difficult moment, and you can feel the pressure of the film deflate slightly. Phillips has grounded his shift in style in the works of the masters – Scorcese especially – so the film feels authentic and gritty but somehow still a part of the moneyed Miami scene. And though it never sticks out as anything particularly original – in the greater context of films or Phillip’s own oeuvre – it’s a solid flick about friendship, growing up, and a couple of bros learning to shoot guns.
One Last Thought:
I gwt Adam McKay and Todd Phillips confused easily. Their films touch, from very different angles on similar themes (man-children) and their rise to the top of comedy’s pile of butter happened almost concurrently. And then, at just the same moment, both pivot to this more political type film, as if in backrooms over expensive bourbon the two challenged each other to push the next boundary. It’s probably not true, but hey, take a look, their films weirdly mirror each other.