Jonah Hill and Miles Teller fire up big-time laughs, but don’t ignore the crazy-ass political absurdity that burns through War Dogs. (Crazy-ass political absurdity being right up in our faces these days.) Based on the 2011 Rolling Stone article, “The Stoner Arms Dealers,” the movie is so achingly true it defies belief. I mean, who’d accept that two twentysomething yeshiva boys from Miami could strike it rich by bidding on U.S. military contracts?
But that’s what was going down in the mid 2000s, during the Bush-Cheney invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. You just had to know how to exploit it. Teller plays David Packouz, a massage therapist who isn’t cutting it as a breadwinner for his pregnant girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) and knows nothing about military contracts. He needs a mentor to show him the ropes. He finds one in his junior-high chum Efraim Diveroli, played by Hill as a ravenous mountain of a con artist who never met a scam he couldn’t squeeze for more. He tells David to stop “jerking guys off” and trying to sell “quality bed sheets” to nursing homes and go where the money is, along with babes and the blow. As a Scarface-worshipper from way back, Efraim knows that scene.
For a while, director and co-writer Todd Phillips charges through the movie like he’s staging a new addition to his Hangover trilogy. And two-time Academy award nominee Hill plays Efraim with such irresistible bravura you’d follow him anywhere. David sure does. Then darkness creeps in. Kudos to the excellent Teller for becoming the audience surrogate as he sees his partner losing control. Soon they’re delivering Berettas to American troops in Baghdad, driving unwittingly through Iraq’s Triangle of Death, and bluffing their way through a $300 million contract from the Pentagon to sell 100 million rounds of AK-74 ammunition to the Afghan army. Bradley Cooper shows up in sleazeball mode as the middleman who greases the deal. To say these stoner war dogs are in over their heads is an understatement.
I’ve heard some critics complain about this movie’s shifting tones — except tones do nothing but shift for David and Efraim. Phillips deserves credit for letting us feel what they feel, including the desperation and not including the lazy moralizing that would explain it all in capital letters. We learn what we need to know from watching Hill and Teller, two actors who understand that show is always better than tell. Even when Phillips gets too into his Scorsese GoodFellas groove, he captures something essential about America’s jackpot mentality and how easy it is to get on board. War Dogs is that rare contemporary comedy that knows how to make a laugh stick in your throat.