Director: David Michod
Stars: Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley
2 (out of 5) Globes
The funniest thing in “War Machine” isn’t the litany of bizarre headaches that turned the war in Afghanistan into a nonstop shitshow. It’s Brad Pitt’s face. As General McMahon, a military god based on the disgraced Stanley McChrystal, Pitt is in “comedy mode,” which some of us would argue is Peak Pitt. He scrunches his face up like a Tex Avery cartoon character. He speaks out of the side of his mouth. And he gets another chance to bust out his Foghorn Leghorn accent — previously employed to legendary effect in “Inglourious Basterds,” and still good for a chuckle even when reheated.
Pitt’s the only straight-shooter, the only thing that consistently kills in the wobbly, well-intentioned “War Machine,” which is what you’d call “theoretically funny.” This is the curious condition in which a comedy contains all the elements of humor — a rich subject matter, terrific actors, good writing — and still can’t deliver much in the way of comedic blows (i.e., actual laughs). It’s our unpopular belief that “The Hangover” suffers from this malady. So does a satire with a source — “The Operators,” by the late journo Michael Hastings, spun from his Rolling Article that got McChrystal fired — that supplies enough ammunition for some “Dr. Strangelove”-level shenanigans, yet still rarely hits the target.
One can sense the off-ness early, namely when Pitt’s McMahon is introduced on the crapper. He’s been called into Afghanistan as essentially a custodian: to mop up the giant mess that is the counter-insurgency, install the promised democratic system and ensure something like, say, ISIS never crops up in the Middle East. What McMahon finds is a hilariously endless list of real, terrifying problems: a populace that doesn’t understand the concept of voting; soldiers who can’t tell which are plebeians and which are insurgents; the fact that the most profitable local export is heroin.
But “War Machine” has trouble dramatizing/comedicizing this comedy of errors. Usually it falls back on a narration track plus close-ups of Pitt looking befuddled. The voiceover is perhaps the strangest part of the film. Despite being constant, the film refrains from identifying our narrating guide, though eagle-eared viewers may identify it as Scott McNairy. But his character, a reporter based on Hastings, doesn’t physically materialize till after the halfway mark, then vacates soon after arriving. It betrays the way filmmaker David Michod has on the material. His previous films, "Animal Kingdom" and "The Rover," in no way suggest he should be making comedy, and he responds by making a cookie-cutter montage movie — like "Goodfellas" only less amusing and less harrowing.
What “War Machine” does get right is the politics. At heart, it’s not a yuk-fest. It’s a funnier, shorter “Patton.” For all its low-hanging-fruit jokes — like President Karzai (Ben Kingsley) fumbling with his Blu-ray player or giggling at “Dumb and Dumber” — it’s sure-handed when it comes to McMahon/McChrystal. He and his staffers could be one-note Ugly American Imperialists. Sometimes they are. But at heart, “War Machine” hates the game, not the player.
Apart from a hothead played by Anthony Michael Hall and based on no less than Mike Flynn, they’re good people trying their best to tame an untameable situation. Pitt makes McMahon both a figure of fun and a paragon of decency — the kind of lunatic who only sleeps four hours and runs seven miles each morning, but still genuinely tries to understand that Afghani people. He’ll unthinkingly blurt out to a staffer, “Goddammit, Pete, why are you so fat?”, but he’ll also do his best to reconnect with the long-suffering wife (Meg Tilly) who’s afraid to say she misses him, even if he’ll always fail at this task, too. It’s a smart film. It’s just not very funny. Except for Pitt.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge