Release Date: May 23
Director: Joshua Seftel
Writer: Mark Leyner, Jeremy Pikser, and John Cusack
Cinematographer: Zoran Popovic
Starring: John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Marisa Tomei, Hilary Duff, Ben Kingsley
Studio/Run Time: First Look Studios, 107 mins.
I wish I understood comedy enough to know why Dr. Strangelove makes me laugh out loud but War, Inc. generally doesn't.
Our generation could use a dark comedy like Strangelove, and on paper, War, Inc. seems to fill the vacuum. It takes place in a world slightly more dominated by global corporations than ours, where opportunists pursue commercial ventures amid chaos and collapse only slightly more aggressively than they do in our plane of existence.
The setting is the fictional country of Turaqistan whose Green Zone is called the Emerald City. Nodding to Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book on the Iraq war and acknowledging the long shadows cast by The Wizard of Oz and Strangelove, the film combines them all with a wizard-like viceroy who issues edicts from a mechanized wheelchair hidden behind a screen. Until the finale, the viceroy looks like a funny series of morphing faces on a computer monitor (Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Flipper), but when he finally appears in the flesh, he's portrayed by an icy Ben Kingsley.
For a guy from Yorkshire, Kingsley does a good Southern accent. Less successful on that front is a sexed-up Hilary Duff who dons a full pout and an indistinctly broken lilt to say things like "he is pig." She plays a Turaqi pop star, and I realized when she opened her mouth that I may have misread the film's title. It could be a phonetic bit of dialogue that completes the phrase "These factions are (blank)." They sure are. Unfortunately, even though I'm watch inc, I'm not laugh inc.
War, Inc. has a fantastic cast: John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Marisa Tomei, and Kingsley, for starters. Dan Aykroyd phones in a brief Dick Cheney impersonation, but all the others, including Duff, do their best with conflicted material. Joan even manages to conjure a few laughs from thin air.
The problems arise when the film turns sincere. Strangelove's absurdity comes naturally from the logic of nuclear détente. Under the rules of international brinkmanship, building a doomsday device, training your bombers to disregard an "abort" message, and giving very few fingers access to the nuclear button all make a weird kind of sense. When chaos ensues, the commentary is implied.
In War, Inc., the logic isn't clear and the chaos exists from the start, not as a result of anything we can see. Then Tomei appears as an independent journalist who speaks the filmmaker’s mind, and while she's as delightful as ever, her earnest character seems out of place in this cartoon, like a photo of your mom pasted into Mad Magazine.
But the bigger problem may be producer, co-writer and star John Cusack, whose recent war exposés don't seem to benefit from his persona as a winning everyguy. In War, Inc., he plays an assassin who's posing as the head of a trade show for freedom. He's the face of all that's wrong with this situation, but deep down we know he'll be persuaded toward the light, because, after all, he's John Cusack.
Each earnest impulse—like a scene of destruction and carnage that's married to Woody Guthrie's "Blood of the Lamb" as rendered by Wilco—blunts the edge of an already scattered satire and obscures the logic beneath it. And the laughs are buried in the same pile of disorderly conduct.