Director : Joshua Seftel
Screenplay : Mark Leyner & Jeremy Pikser & John Cusack
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : John Cusack (Brand Hauser), Joan Cusack (Marsha Dillon), Marisa Tomei (Natalie Hegalhuzen), Hilary Duff (Yonica Babyyeah), Ben Kingsley (Walken), Dan Aykroyd (The Vice President), Lyubomir Neikov (Omar Sherif)
War, Inc. is a self-described “political cartoon” that is either too cartoonish, or not cartoonish enough. Satire is a tricky feat, especially when aimed at something as distinctly in the moment as the occupation and attempted democratization / corporatization of a Middle Eastern country. When satire is at its best, it seems effortless, which is the exact opposite of War, Inc.. While it is not a complete failure, in its obvious striving to be Dr. Strangelove of the 2000s, it tries too hard and reaches too far, giving us ridiculously broad targets and mixing tones with such reckless abandon that you’re not sure if you’re witnessing some kind of new-wave brilliance or simple desperation.
The story takes place almost entirely in the fictional country of Turaqistan, which has been taken over by Tamerlane, an enormous private American corporation headed by the former U.S. Vice President (Dan Aykroyd). Turaqistan is, of course, absolute chaos, except for the small “green zone” in which Tamerlane has located its operations and is putting together an expo designed to sell the country to other corporations. Unfortunately, a local oil minister (Lyubomir Neikov) is threatening Tamerlane’s profits and control, so Brand Hauser (John Cusack), a former CIA agent-turned-freelance assassin is called in to take him out. Since he’s played by John Cusack, Hauser is something of a nice guy even if he’s a professional killer with a deeply cynical streak. He has a backstory involving the killing of his wife and the kidnapping of his daughter, which we get in brief, disorienting flash cuts that are the first sign of the film’s blatant tonal weirdness. Hauser is also humanized by his relationship with an Onstar-like navigation/help line (voiced by Montel Williams) that is built into every vehicle he uses, from Hummers to jet planes.
Once in Turaquistan, Hauser becomes our guide through the ever-increasing occupation-insanity, which Tamerlane is trying to mask via Popeye’s chicken, cell phones, pop music, and lots of denial. He is led around the supposed green zone (nicknamed “The Emerald City”) by Marsha Dillon (Joan Cusack), a fellow operative whose broad, leering smile and obsessive desire for control over that which cannot be controlled mark her as the most obvious symbol of misguided American opportunism run amok. Tamerlane’s effect on the local culture (what’s left of it) is embodied by Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff), an oversexed pop sensation whose signature song is “I Want to Blow You … Up.” For reasons that are not immediately explained, Hauser is repulsed by her gyrating juvenile sexuality and becomes determined to root out the scared little girl beneath all the make-up and hooker clothes, a subplot whose attempt at genuine human pathos presents yet another tonal inflection to the already overcrowded film. And, if that weren’t enough, Hauser also begins bonding with Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), a hard-nosed journalist whose integrity, ethics, leftist sentiments, and general disgust with everything around her turns her into the film’s “voice of reason” and self-congratulatory stand-in for like-minded audience members.
Running about half an hour too long, War, Inc. certainly has some moments of satirical hilarity, but in its overstuffed, overwrought, trying-too-hard-to-please-the-cynics-but-still-appeal-to-the-mainstream way, it comes across as simultaneously too much and not enough. The script by cult novelist Mark Leyner, Bulworth screenwriter Jeremy Pikser, and star John Cusack is something of a mess, and director Joshua Seftel, who has directed a few reality television series and several well-received political documentaries, never gets a handle on the material. As a result, virtually everything about the film seems either overdone or stretched thin, from the caricatured performances (just wait until Ben Kingsley arrives on screen with a swaggering Texas accent) to the sets and special effects that clearly aim for the epic, but generally look kind of cheap. When the film works, it’s like an extended bit from The Daily Show, presenting with a straight face the absolute absurdity of the world we’re trying to forge. When it doesn’t, it lurches into some strange netherworld in which the chaos it’s depicting begins to seep into the film itself, so that we’re left with a cautionary satire whose absurdity is more assaultive than enlightening.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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