It's always a worrisome sign when a fairly high profile release arrives as a screener DVD in one's mailbox several months before the film's opening date. Still, I had some hopes for War, Inc., given my appreciation for all things Cusack and the potential for satire in its setting.
But as it officially arrives in theaters, if it isn't a bomb, the film's about as messy as our own current situation in the Middle East.
Joshua Seftel, whose previous work included the hit and miss documentary Taking on the Kennedys, on that famous political clan, directs his first feature War, Inc. and may be a little over his head here. This absurdist political farce has its moments but requires a deft touch for satire, and with Billy Wilder no longer available, perhaps no one could have made the uneven script (by Mark Leyner, Jeremy Pikser and its star John Cusack) work. It's ambitious, and while I don't know if some of the criticism it's received for being "already out of date" is quite fair (alas, the quagmire in Iraq is still current, even if the particulars tackled here would have been fresher a few years ago), but that's the least of its problems.
It reminded me at times of Mike Judge's also messy, but much funnier, Idiocracy; that farce showed us a dystopian future spawned by the trends in own current reality, while War, Inc. shows us a dystopian near-future based on the trends of our current reality. But while Idiocracy, which was also clunky, knew it was a satire first and foremost, War, Inc. can't really decide what it is.
In it Cusack plays Brand Hauser (the film's original title), a former hit man (channeling his Grosse Point Blank character, but never quite finding the high notes he hit in that black comedy) hired by a former American Vice President (Dan Aykroyd) now running a war profiteering corporation (shades of Haliburton) that occupies war-torn Turaqistan, to assassinate an Arab oil minister. Hauser poses as a trade show producer for the corporation, who maintains his cover by organizing the high profile wedding of a Middle Eastern pop star Yonica Babyyeah (played, yes, by Hilary Duff, as a combination of Britney, Ruby and, I suppose, herself). Things are complicated (as if they weren't already) by the arrival of a left-wing reporter (Marisa Tomei) -- we know this because it's mentioned several times, and because she's written for the Nation-- whom Hauser, of course, falls for.
The film has its share of memorable set pieces -- the Combat-a-Rama virtual reality ride for journalists wanting to experience the war from safer environs is undeniably inspired -- and amusing throw away one-liners, usually coming from the deadpan Cusack as the confused hitman. In fact, all of the cast gives it their all; Tomei is quite appealing, and even Duff gives it her all, surprises with the amount of depth she adds to a pretty one-dimensional character. Ben Kingsley appears, making an impression in only a few scenes as Cusack's former boss, a CIA man, who's gone (or perhaps always was) a bit mental. Kingsley gives it his all (adding this to his more front and center, and off center, performance in The Wackness) but his scenes are just, for lack of a better word, odd, though he and Cusack do have one of the more memorably bizarre fight scenes in recent memory. John's sister Joan Cusack, normally very reliable in anything she's in, overacts a bit in hysterical mode as Hauser's stressed assistant, but together the cast reflects a greater issue with coherence. Each one is often playing a different level or pitch, while the script rattles around trying to find itself. Add in choppy editing and pacing, and War, Inc. simply doesn't work.
And while there are some good lines, there are that many more attempts at humor that come off as lazy. The name of the targeted minister? Omar Sharif. Get it? Because there was a famous actor named Omar Sharif once, and by referencing him, the film attempts -- I have no idea what! And while, again, I don't mind that the inspiration for many of the plot lines are now a bit old, they feel too on the nose, too directly based on real life absurdity instead of actually adding something new.
And as it stumbles towards its climax, with a rather obvious "surprise" revelation and then the pop singer's anarchic wedding, whatever interest it may have garnered from the audience has long since dissipated.
Mark Leyner, one of the co-scripters, has written many inspired pieces of short fiction, and you can sport his pop cultural absurdities all over the landscape here, but like much of his writing a little goes a long way.
It's really too bad; War, Inc. could've been a contender, at a time when we could certainly use some well-targeted war satire. Maybe one will come along.