‘War Dogs’
Director:
Todd Phillips
Stars: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Is it really that hard to make a rollicking satire about amoral arms dealers? A decade ago “Lord of War” fumbled through what should have been a swish, tackling a subject as harrowing as it is absurd. Now “War Dogs” does the same thing. Both are momentarily sharp and funny, and “War Dogs” has the benefit of being a true tall tale of two dumb douchebags who thought it’d be cool to sell weapons and ammo to the U.S. army. Both films are also way too nice. They’re nice in the same irritating way, too: They try to make the main anti-hero — there, played by Nicolas Cage; here, by Miles Teller — alternately hissable and sympathetic. It’s a move the filmmakers think makes it complex, when it really turns it into a bland mush.

Teller’s David Packouz has a partner-in-crime, who’s also an enabler: Jonah Hill’s Efraim Diveroli, a swaggering, entitled jabroni prone to back-stabbing, Ugly Americanism and anti-Semitic jabs, despite the blindingly gold chai pendant around his neck. He’s a fun monster, whereas David is a sweet-faced quasi-innocent who gets sad music and a token underwritten gal pal (Ana de Armas). Guess which real-life person collaborated with the studio and which is suing them? Childhood buds who drifted apart, they meet by chance in young adulthood, when Efraim hips the cash-strapped David to a get-rich scheme so stupid it might just work: Find sketchy arms from troubled countries, then sell them on the cheap in the early days of the Iraq War, which they claim to oppose.

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You know who would turn this story into a raucous burlesque? Todd Phillips, he of bros-behaving-badly fare like “Old School” and the “Hangover” movies. As it happens, Phillips did make “War Dogs” — just not in a way that plays to his strengths. You could sense, particularly in the bad-but-sort-of-interesting third “Hangover,” that he was evolving, becoming a more visually dynamic filmmaker, suddenly more keen to blend genres. Whatever ideal he’s aiming for, he’s not there yet. It's not that "War Dogs" is too serious but that Phillips can't figure the movie out. Instead, it jostles between wild and emo, which is to say between Hill and Teller. It moves in a frustrating circle: Teller acts like a guilt-ridden villain, sad that he’s doing bad things. Then Hill storms in, says something hilariously offensive or moronic or evil (usually all three), then storms out, leaving Teller looking lost and unhappy that his co-star is given all the fun stuff.

It’s telling that most out-there moments are pure fictions, including a mid-film set piece where our two idiots transport cargo through the “Triangle of Death,” unaware that the region is called that. (“Triangle of Death, bro!”) Some of the details are darkly funny, namely some business about repackaging sketchily-procured Chinese bullets. But the script isn’t big on details, and we’re treated to a routine rise-and-fall ride that wants to be Scorsese — particularly “The Wolf of Wall Street” — but has little of its slyness, complexity or gift for pitch black humor. Where that movie baited us into being seduced by a greed beast, “War Dogs” is about a decent dude with some loose ethics who learns a lesson, and after the film ends scores a movie deal. But karma is a bitch. Is it just deserts that the movie kind of sucks?

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge