Comedy is hard. Satire is a lot harder. Since Dr. Strangelove, filmmakers have been desperately trying to match the high-water mark of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece with mixed results. Recent misfires like American Dreamz, Lord of War and Southland Tales are so woefully lacking in entertainment that you have to wonder whether Hollywood has completely lost its ability to spoof world affairs. (Maybe it's that California has become a living example of satire with its action-hero governor. Is it a coincidence that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — the best examples of the form — are produced in New York?) You have to go back a decade or more to find decent political lampoons like Wag The Dog, Bulworth and Bob Roberts. And while those three films are fine, they're dated compared to the timelessness of the much older Dr. Strangelove.
The genre minefield that actor-writer John Cusack has stepped into is littered with tragic missteps, and though War, Inc. doesn't come home in a body bag, it does arrive in theaters badly crippled by a lack of focus and poorly timed comedy.
Cusack is Hauser, an ex-CIA assassin working freelance for Tamerlane Industries, the first private security firm (think Halliburton meets Blackwater) hired by the U.S. government to simultaneously wage war and organize reconstruction in oil-rich Turaqistan. Hauser's mission is to whack Turaqi head of state, Omar Sharif (not the actor), because of his plans to construct a national pipeline. Arriving in the devastated country's Green Zone, he's provided with an outlandish cover: as the producer for Tamerlane's splashy trade show, he must organize the media-event wedding of Turaqi pop star Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff). There, amid the chaos of corporatized warfare and local insurgency, he meets a beautiful left-wing journalist (Marisa Tomei) and begins to question the morality of what he does for a living.
If it sounds like a convoluted, over-reaching follow-up to Grosse Pointe Blank, you're close. While there's no literal connection between the two movies, Cusack once again plays a troubled and cynical hit man in a black suit who charms with his fast-talking patter but can unleash unholy violence when he wants to. And, of course, he once again has a tough-talking assistant played by his sister Joan Cusack (who hideously overplays the part this time around).
Though he's aiming for bigger targets, by invoking the earlier film Cusack makes clear how much War, Inc. pales in comparison. Grosse Pointe Blank was an engaging and tightly focused black comedy, cleverly contrasting its idyllic suburban high school reunion against the violence of professional murder. War, Inc., on the other hand, is a chaotic, sprawling mess that attempts to parody young sexualized pop stars while delivering an outraged attack on war profiteering and Bush administration policies. Cusack's morose sense of humor almost succeeds in pulling everything together; his ambitions have gotten the better of him.
Working with a different team of writers this time — Jeremy Pikser (Bulworth) and postmodernist meta-novelist Mark Leyner (Et Tu, Babe) — Cusack has a lot of funny ideas that never cohere into a funny movie. For instance, an ongoing bit involving Hauser's confessional relationship with an OnStar operator (voiced by Montel Williams) is more amusing in theory than execution.
Part of War, Inc.'s problem is that documentarian newcomer Joshua Seftel, for all his fish-eyed-lens shots, doesn't have the directorial confidence that George Armitage brought to Grosse Pointe Blank. His pacing is perpetually off, and he often loses track of the narrative. The bigger issue, however, is that Cusack's story is simply too unwieldy. While there's no doubting the writers' passion and indignation, their frenzied punk rock approach to parody creates far more noise than impact.
Nevertheless, there are enough viciously observed jokes buried beneath War, Inc.'s numerous explosions and messy storytelling to simply write it off. A bit involving amputee "Rockettes" dancing on prosthetic legs made from the same Tamerlane technology used to blow off their limbs in the first place is particularly inspired, as is the line: "Another breathtaking example of how American know-how alleviates the suffering it creates." Such moments make one wonder how much the movie might have been embraced by Bush administration critics if it'd been released in the early fist-pumping years of the War on Terror rather than now, when 70 percent of America is disgustedly counting down the days until our disgraced commander in chief finally leaves office.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].