Though it is marketed as a buddy comedy, whether or not you like Todd Phillips’ War Dogs squarely depends on your opinion of rising star Miles Teller. Teller’s work has included intense, inspired student (Whiplash), second-banana yokel (Footloose remake), smarmy pseudo-antagonist (the Divergent series) and prodigious superhero scientist (the Fantastic Four reboot). He looks like a young Robert Mitchum for the “bro code” generation, and in War Dogs he plays to that stereotype in this “based-on-a-true-story” tale of 20-somethings exploiting military contracts during the Iraq War.
Sadly, his dramatic range is just not enough to make this film — a commentary on the perils of capitalism and maturity from the creator of The Hangover — have any lasting meaning. Teller portrays David Packouz, a college dropout who supports himself as a massage therapist while trying to sell bulk bed sheets to retirement homes on the side, a business plan that begins to circle the drain at the same time Packouz learns his live-in girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Aramis), is pregnant. But his life sees a much more drastic change when he reunites with his middle school bad-boy friend, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who is back in town to set up shop taking advantage of a little-known government initiative that allows small businesses to bid on U.S. military contracts and make millions of dollars in the process.
David and his girlfriend are against the Iraq War, so he tells her Efraim is helping him offload the mountain of bedding merchandise stored in their small Miami Beach apartment. In reality, the duo are selling weaponry to overseas military forces. The money keeps multiplying, and greed creeps in so fast they don’t tell their silent partner, Ralph (Kevin Pollak), about going into business with infamous international arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) in pursuit of a $300 million contract to equip Afghan solders. While the story is ostensibly Wall Street-meets-Green Zone, based around a 2011 Rolling Stone article about the real-life pursuits of Packouz and Diveroli, the film is more about the struggle of a generation of “bros” trying to find their way in adulthood — while trying to emulate the success of Scarface.
Teller and Hill have some comedic chemistry as two lost little boys blinded by potential profits, and there are some fleeting moments of fun when they drive a truck though Baghdad’s “Triangle of Death.” Unfortunately, although Hill delivers his trademark juvenile levity, Teller falls short when it comes to offering a dramatic counterpart. As David’s relationship with Iz become more strained when she learns where the money is really coming from, Teller’s baby-faced performance pales in comparison to both the beauty and intensity of de Armas as the smoldering, suffering spouse. Pollak stands out in his minor role of a dry cleaner inadvertently inserted into the international arms race, but Cooper (who teamed with his Hangover director as a producer for this film) seems shoehorned into the proceedings, and his addition distracts from the overall story of boys trying to find their way as men in an increasingly more violent and shady world.
This “close-but-not-enough” scenario is emblematic of the entire movie. The term war dogs, when used by the military, refers to a politician inciting warring factions to fight — not to private businesses trying to profit off the battles. Writer-director Phillips tries to make an insightful statement on young men trying to grow beyond the drunken debauchery popularized by his Hangover trilogy, but the final scene of War Dogs leaves that commentary ambiguous. Teller attempts at times to grow into his desired role of a leading man, but where he really excels is when he indulges in the “bro code” personified by Hill’s greasy and greedy foil.
When the smoke clears, and it is time to assess the win-loss record of the story and its players, War Dogs only amounts to the growing pains of kids playing war games without embracing the actual bloodshed of the adult world. It might be worth streaming on a rainy afternoon or if you are trapped on a plane, but these celluloid storm clouds never clear and the film never truly matures into adulthood. Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references.
Now playing at Regal Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark, Carmike 10, and Epic of Hendersonville