Anger and frustration rarely make for good comedy, and there's plenty of anger on display in War, Inc., a sour, over-the-top satire about America's (and particularly Halliburton's) role in Iraq. The rage leaps out in little throwaway jokes, as well as in broad, tacky sweeps, like co-writer/producer/star John Cusack touting the high-tech prosthetic legs on a high-kicking amputee chorus line as "just another breathtaking example of how American know-how alleviates the suffering it creates." The humor is midnight-black, despairing, and hateful, but all the sick gags could propel the movie to cult status, if not for the flailing tone and lack of focus. War, Inc. wants to be the next Dr. Strangelove, but it's more like the next Southland Tales.
Essentially playing an older, wearier version of his Grosse Pointe Blank hitman role, Cusack is assigned to assassinate a Middle Eastern oil minister named Omar Sharif. (No, he isn't played by Omar Sharif.) Cusack's cover story has him playing the producer of the "Brand USA" trade show in "Turaqistan," a country devastated by an American invasion and now run by an American corporation called Tamerlane, and a mysterious "viceroy" who only communicates "from an undisclosed location" though a series of ironic shifting celebrity images. (And yet he isn't the film's Dick Cheney avatar; that honor goes to Dan Aykroyd, who plays most of his role as ex-VP and current Tamerlane head honcho from a toilet seat.) While planning his latest hit, Cusack falls for a hard-hitting reporter (Marisa Tomei) who dismisses him as another greedy corporate opportunist. Meanwhile, Hilary Duff flounces around as a Middle Eastern Britney Spears, a thickly accented, sexed-up pop-tart whose role is so inherently awful that it's hard to tell whether Duff is pulling it off well.
Like the recent Charlie Wilson's War, War Inc. veers between tones so radically that it's hard to laugh or cry, because the grim, hyper comedy and overblown melodrama each make the other feel wildly inappropriate. Some of its gags hit home, like the "Combat-o-rama" virtual-reality ride where journalists get a prepackaged "embedded experience" in lieu of actual access to soldiers. And the cast, at least, is convincing and lively—Cusack knows his role well, and his sister Joan—essentially playing an older, pissier version of her Grosse Pointe Blank role—is an underused highlight. But the overall experience is manic, juvenile, and hit-or-miss, as if the auteurs behind Epic Movie were trying to remake Wag The Dog. It's too soon to laugh about Iraq, and it'll never be time to laugh about it with this kind of maladroit humor.