In the world of comedy it doesn’t matter whether you’re a director or actor, there comes a time where they feel their skills are worth testing in the dramatic waters of other genres. For the memorable you look at Adam Sandler in Punchdrunk Love. For the recent you can watch Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher and when it comes to directors you can look at the memorable and recent Adam Mckay, who’s wall street drama The Big Short got him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. For director Todd Phillips Adam McKay has left some beautifully preserved footprints for him to attempt to follow, and thus he has stepped away from heading films such as The Hangover and Due Date into War Dogs, a film not too dissimilar from McKay’s own, but one that won’t bring in the same plaudits.
Running the show in War Dogs is the combined talent of Jonah Hill, a man himself transitioning fluidly between comedy and drama, and Miles Teller, an actor that still has a lot to prove. Together they play Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz respectively, two individuals who exploit government initiative to start up an arms company on the backdrop of the second Gulf War. Despite only being twenty something residents of South Beach, the two manage to lie and cheat their way to various contracts that put themselves in completely manic situations, all with the intent of making some lovely millions.
Both Hill and Teller provide riveting lead performances that steer this ship through even the roughest of seas. Teller rides the moral ambiguity of their work very well and his rationalising of decisions encompasses the every man, allowing us to really share in their experiences. Hill on the other hand is narcissism incarnate, energised by nothing other than his selfish greed and how much he would destroy in attempt to satisfy his unquenchable thirst. Throw in a comic laugh and you have a well rounded character that brings the laughs as well as a fascinating performance. While Teller rides the tightrope between right and wrong, Hill rides it between anti-hero and pure villain.
Unfortunately the weight of the story doesn’t match up with the performances and though some set pieces make for impressive viewing, in the grand scheme of things they don’t really provide a lasting buzz. There’s moments in which they capitalise on shining light on the brutality of of the world but they could have done that so much more. Films like The Big Short and the subjectively similar Lord of War do much better in having us understand that we live in a cruel system. As for War Dogs they don’t even get close to that level.
If the question you ask is whether Todd Phillips can cut it without a naked Ken Jeong jumping out of the boot of a car, then yes he can. War Dogs isn’t a perfect feature but it has moments of entertainment, a strong message that doesn’t always shine through and some performances to be proud of. Unfortunately there’s plenty of films out there that do the same and do it better. Phillips is model student at the moment but it will take a little longer for him to graduate to McKay’s level.