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Man Seeking Movies: War Dogs leaves more to be desired

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller’s friendship is strictly business in this movie.

By Jack Cronin | Aug. 27, 2016

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In every war, there are two sides. Each one has soldiers nobly serving and protecting their countries from outside threats. Then there’s a less-discussed third side: the arms dealers who profit off these international conflicts.

Or so “War Dogs” would have you believe.

The latest film from Todd Phillips, the director of The Hangover trilogy, is based on the true story of two friends in their mid-twenties who exploited a governmental system that allows small businesses to deal arms to national militaries, ultimately earning them a $300 million deal with the Pentagon.

Clearly drawing inspiration from recent films like The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street, Phillips attempts to make social commentary through a pair of antiheroes who are capitalizing on a corrupt system. Although it shows occasional shades of insight, humor and intrigue, War Dogs unfortunately falls flat.

At the heart of the film is the relationship between two lifelong friends, David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). David is the down-on-his-luck protagonist, working as a licensed masseur and failing to start his own company; Efraim is David’s slimy childhood friend, wearing expensive suits and slicked-back hair that immediately recalls Jonah Hill’s role in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” When David learns he has a child on the way and insufficient funds to support the child, Efraim easily lures him into a lucrative financial opportunity.

Initially, their deals are small. But gradually, their lives escalate into full-scale illegal operations that include fraud, shady business partners and smuggling.

On a pretty basic level, the story works. David’s evolution from a masseur to a millionaire arms dealer is fairly natural. Crucial to this development is the performance by Miles Teller, who impressively maintains sympathy through his charm and subtle moral compass even as he is sucked into an immoral world.

However, little else in the film works well.

Although it makes logical sense why David would initially be enticed to sell arms, it’s often unclear why he continues down this path as he is constantly risking his life and questioning the legality of their operations. While the most obvious answer may be that he was seduced by the luxuries of living the high life, “War Dogs” never seems to fully commit itself to this aspect.

Rather, it seems to offer him opportunities to quit each time he comes home to his girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas). Although she’s a mainstay throughout the film, the script fails to make their relationship feel significant. Nor does it allow her to be anything more than a girlfriend who hates it when David lies to her.

The biggest failure, though, is the development and portrayal of Efraim. Everything about _War Dogs) wants to convince you that he is either a suave, savvy businessman or an intimidating gangster. But it successfully does neither. Jonah Hill lacks the charisma of a swindling salesman. Likewise, his shrill cackle and general look of bewilderment make him the opposite of menacing.

Furthermore, Efraim and David are supposed to be best friends, but this friendship never feels earned. They rarely banter and almost exclusively talk about business. If you were to jump in halfway through the movie, you wouldn’t even know that this pair had known each other their whole lives.

All things considered, War Dogs is just alright as a movie. It has moments of good social commentary and is fairly compelling. It’s just hard to be much more when the writing and half of the characters fall flat.

MOVE gives War Dogs 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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