It's easy to see why Iraq War movies fail at the box office. Why would audiences dispirited by years of borderline-apocalyptic Iraq news screaming at them from every news show, newspaper, and random crazy person want to plunk down their hard-earned cash to be shouted at for an hour and a half about the futility of the Iraq War by a bunch of feminazis, liberal do-gooders, and velvet-pants-wearing fancy-lads? When you factor in that the phantom would-be filmgoer in question recently got downsized, defaulted on his mortgage, watched his 401K shrink to nothing, was swindled out of his life savings by Bernie Madoff, and died in Hurricane Katrina after losing all four of his limbs and much of his torso fighting in Afghanistan, the prospect of paying bloated movie-ticket prices to see cinematic Debby Downers like Grace Is Gone or The Lucky Ones becomes even less attractive. 2008 will go down in history as the year the living came to envy the dead.
Art has the power to incite action and open minds, but these films inevitably found themselves preaching to the choir. It's hard to imagine anyone thinking, "Huh, I'm still undecided as to whether the Iraq War is a necessary-albeit-painful step to spread democracy in the Middle East and fight tyranny, or a sub-Hitler exercise in colonialism and naked greed. Watching these grainy, incoherent, left-wing digital-video documentaries on how George Bush is evil incarnate will help me form a more informed, objective opinion on the subject."
Just as commercials need to be funny, shocking, sexy, or colorful to break through the defenses of consumers who resent being told what they must buy in order to make their lives worth living, Iraq War movies fight an uphill battle against the fatigue and indifference of audiences burnt out by too much bad news and too many bad anti-war manifestos. Iraq War movies need to scream just to get heard.
But sometimes even screaming isn't enough. War. Inc should have been a publicist's dream, a star-studded, timely satirical comedy with all the right influences (Dr. Strangelove, Terry Southern, Mad magazine, Three Kings, the Marx brothers, Wizard Of Oz, Apocalypse Now, Looney Tunes) and marketing hooks up the wazoo. For starters, it's a sorta-sequel to the 1997 cult hit Grosse Pointe Blank that once again finds star/producer/co-writer John Cusack playing a depressed, soul-sick hitman in the midst of a mid-life crisis.
In sharp contrast to the tidal wave of shudderingly earnest documentaries and dramas about the Iraq War II: The Iraqoning, War. Inc is a brash, day-glo cartoon, a live-action comic book with a prankster's soul and an activist's overworked conscience. Even more tantalizing from a publicity perspective, Hilary Duff shakes up her finely manicured image by playing a depraved caricature of Britney Spears with a thick European accent and a bottomless hunger for attention that leads her to do things like stick a live scorpion down her pants.
War. Inc also marks the screenwriting debut of postmodernist cult novelist Mark Leyner, whose impish spirit, love-hate relationship with technology spinning madly out of control, and over-the-top sensibility permeates the script he co-wrote with Cusack and Oscar-nominated Bulworth scribe Jeremy Pikser. It also features Dan Aykroyd's return to the sharp character work and meticulous impersonations of his Saturday Night Live stint; he plays the film's ornery Dick Cheney surrogate. And then there's Sir Ben Kingsley acting like a fool, and Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei in a rare clothed performance.
The film even finds a fresh angle of attack on the multi-headed beast that is the Iraq War—it makes a vituperative critique of our administration's incestuous relationship with sinister corporate parasites like Halliburton. Yes, War, Inc. was the movie everybody was going to be talking about. Instead, it became the film nobody talked about, a phenomenon commonly known as W. syndrome.
Just as there's something faintly tragic about aging pixies like Meg Ryan and Winona Ryder, there's something sad about boyish actors aging into puffy, sad-eyed, middle-aged men. John Cusack accordingly cuts a tragicomic figure as a highly paid assassin and former CIA operative whose inner light died long ago, leaving him a hot-sauce-guzzling shell of a man. This haunted quality proved enormously poignant in Ice Harvest, but here, Cusack just seems as lost and confused as the film he so unsteadily anchors.
After killing some folks at a bar for profit, if not fun, Cusack flies to a fictional Iraq-like country named Turaqistan, where a Dick Cheney-like former vice president (Dan Aykroyd) who now works for a Halliburton-like entity called Tamerlane assigns him to do some murder-like activities to an oil-magnate-like dude named Omar Sharif, who's threatening American business interests by planning to build a pipeline in his country. In War Inc., Turaqistan is a wholly owned subsidiary of Tamerlane: The buddy-buddy relationship between free-enterprise-crazed neo-cons and big business has officially been consummated.
Once safely ensconced in Turaqistan, Cusack assumes the cover of a trade-show producer and begins wooing Marisa Tomei, a crusading Naomi Klein-like journalist—War, Inc. was inspired by a Klein article called "Baghdad Year Zero"—who's immune to his slippery charm. In his capacity as a faux-trade-show producer, Cusack works on the gala wedding of pop star Yonica Babyyeah (Duff), the "Britney Spears of Central Asia." Good Lord, even War Inc.'s character names are trying way too hard.
It's hard to describe War, Inc. without making it seem much better than it actually is. In the early going, Leyner, Cusack, and Pikser's script is dizzy with manic comic invention. In Turaqistan, Cusack takes his marching orders from an enigmatic, squeaky-voiced Wizard Of Oz-like figure known only as The Viceroy, represented by a computer screen morphing between images of iconic Americans in his underground bunker in the basement of a Popeye's.
To soothe his troubled conscience, Cusack checks in regularly with an OnStar-like computer (voiced by Montel Williams, of all people) that acts as his best friend, priest, and psychiatrist. I admired a lot of the film's satirical conceits, like a war-simulation screening room that allows stage-managed journalists to be "virtually embedded" with none of the pesky hazards of actually traveling to a real live war zone (death, injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, the shameful lack of wi-fi and TiVo) but I never, you know, laughed. Not once.
This invites the question: Does satire have to be funny to be successful? Should satire be measured by guffaws, or sociopolitical insights? Ideally, a satire should provoke guffaws and thought, but War, Inc. fails on both counts, in part because its heady cerebral conceits are overrun by glib shots at cheap targets that lustily embrace self-parody. War, Inc. takes aim at sacred cows like slutty pop stars (Duff), Wafrican-Asian wannabe gangstas (Duff's fiancé's thugged-out, deluded posse) and Dick Cheney. It's about time sometime knocked these universally beloved figures off their pedestal.
Duff's devolution from squeaky-clean Disney teen princess to tawdry teen temptress, from chastity poster-brat to Maxim cover girl, made me forget a somewhat salient fact regarding her career: She's a fucking terrible actress. Just god-awful. One of the worst. She's a blank, dead-eyed husk utterly lost when called upon to do anything more challenging than robotically deliver lines and smile pretty for the camera.
As a scandalous pop trollop, Duff is like a little girl flopping around in her mother's slutty lingerie. Her leaden parody of pop idiocy has Triumph The Insult Comic Dog's accent and Britney Spears' strip-mall-strip-club skankuality. It doesn't help that the film burdens her with dialogue like this:
• "How my ass make you puke?"
• "Nobody cares for my beautiful soul. They care for my ass. Bitches rule. Yonica rules."
• "Virgins are good for getting fucked, right? That is what I am good for. Right. That's what everybody knows."
• "If I'm whore, at least I can be rich."
Duff's character is little more than a K-Mart version of Sarah Michelle Gellar's awesomely oblivious pop-porn star from Southland Tales. (I can't help but wonder where Yonica Babyyeah stands on the crucial issue of criminalizing teen horniness.) Duff's pop tart is a scared, lonely little girl hiding behind a gaudy, oversexed image, but Duff projects deer-in-the-headlights mortification instead of brazen sexuality or blinkered innocence.
Like Humprey Bogart in Casablanca, Cusack is ultimately a romantic masquerading as a hard-boiled cynic, an idealist whose faith in humanity is reactivated by Tomei's passionate activism and Duff's squirmy vulnerability. He's a cowboy who strolls into a lawless town as a cynical gun-for-hire, but leaves a hero in a white hat. This Western motif is expressed most overtly by the score, which riffs endlessly on Ennio Morricone's iconic work with Sergio Leone.
In its third act, War Etc. lurches from one whiplash-inducing tonal shift from another. [SPOILERS AHEAD.] Cusack decides not to kill Omar Sharif, learns that Duff is actually his daughter (and also that Darth Vader is his father and that love truly is the Fifth Element), and abandons his halfhearted nihilism. The burnt-out gunslinger becomes the patriarch of a surrogate family, and War, Inc. gives itself over to incoherence in a slapstick climax where Cusack discovers that The Viceroy is actually his old CIA handler (Ben Kingsley) in a wheelchair.
The performances are divided neatly between sleepy underacting (Cusack, Tomei) and grotesque scenery-chewing (Duff, Joan Cusack as John's tightly wound assistant). In the overacting department, Kingsley is the most egregious offender. Confident that his knightship cannot be taken away on the basis of a single horrid performance (if it could, he would have been de-knightified after signing on for The Love Guru, or Uwe Boll's Bloodrayne), Kingsley delivers a performance that suggests the demon progeny of Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, Foghorn Leghorn, and that guy in your high-school theater class who keeps screaming for no apparent reason.
As Tasha adroitly noted in her review, War Inc desperately wants to be Dr. Strangelove, but ends up in Southland Tales territory instead, though it lacks that film's lunatic conviction and liberal sprinklings of pure genius. Director Joshua Seftel doesn't seem to understand that Dr. Strangelove worked largely because Stanley Kubrick's detached aesthetic perfectly complemented the manic outrageousness of Terry Southern's script. Strangelove was a perfect union of hot and cold, stoned, hyper-verbal hipster, and deadpan technical genius. War, Inc. feels more like third-rate Southern on speed, all empty provocation and scatology flying off the rails.
War, Inc. reminded me of the wonderful line in 30 Rock where Alec Baldwin tells Tina Fey that if he wanted to be told what he already knew, he'd read the Huffington Post. (That one-liner is rendered even more subversive by the fact that Baldwin—and Cusack for that matter—is part of the Limousine Liberal brigade over at Arianna Huffington's online salon.)
War, Inc. is dedicated to telling us what we already know: The shotgun marriage of unfettered capitalism and warmongering is problematic at best, war profiteering is creepy and wrong, there's something seriously wrong with that Britney Spears woman, and Dick Cheney is like the devil, only less amiable. Oh, and the Iraq War may have been a mistake. This modern world moves so rapidly that War, Inc. already felt obsolete by the time it opened to overwhelmingly negative reviews (it scored a 37 on Metacritic and a 30 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and grossed less than $1 million.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco