Todd Phillips’ on-brand form of hypermasculine posturing takes itself to new heights of self-indulgence in his first quote unquote serious film, War Dogs. The film, adapted from a Rolling Stone article, is not all too different from Phillips’ usual exhibitions of the male id run amok. But whereas his previous films were firmly entrenched in an infantile vision of masculinity, War Dogs contextualizes itself within the parameters of: This Really Happened. Not as if that precludes it from being any less infantile, but it does modify our reading of the text. Smarter people than I will analyze why there’s a sudden uptick in quality when directors move from broad comedy to broad social concerns (told comically) but it worked for Adam McKay and The Big Short and it works, albeit to a lesser degree, for Phillips and War Dogs.
David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a massage therapist, working for wealthy clientele in Miami. His perpetual proximity to wealth skews his worldview, motivating him to risk his life savings on bedding for the elderly, with hopes to supply local nursing homes. The deal is a bust, with Packouz learning one in a series of hard truths. He eventually catches up with an old elementary school friend in Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), in possession of all the qualities and perceived virtues that he lacks: wealth and success. Diveroli is a small-time arms dealer looking to expand his enterprise and seeing his friend in trouble, offers him a deal.
There’s an essay quality to War Dogs that forces its audience to engage with it on a much more intimate level. Akin to The Big Short’s recurring use of on-screen text that suggested passages in time, each “chapter” of War Dogs begins with a thesis statement that is eventually echoed in the film’s dialogue. This use of repetition casually reaffirms the picture’s broader scope, which addresses a generational phenomenon that fixates on the empty pursuit of the material, with our perpetual refusal of understanding the why behind it all.
This “acquisition of wealth” as maxim is reflected in the two major hypermasculine cinematic milestones that Phillips refers to ad nauseam throughout the film: Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The De Palma film, in particular, has entered into the cultural lexicon in a weirdly perverse sort of way, mutating from a cautionary vision of the erosive qualities of wealth to a kind of beacon of virtue. How many teenage boys look at that film as less a nightmare and more a dream? Phillips posits that Packouz and Diveroli are products of this worldview: boys embracing the Tony Montana narrative as a means of seizing the hypermasculine identity that has eluded them throughout their lives.
Formally, however, Phillips is clearly indebted to Scorsese, evoking the director’s extensive use of voiceover, nonlinear structure, freeze framing, and dad-rock soundtrack. The pieces of a Scorsese film are in place but realized without the kind of steady and precise hand that one associates with the director and his editor. In its place you’ll find the kind of humor that you more or less associate with The Hangover series; the kind of douchebag, bro-down that has been Phillips bread and butter for over a decade. Write (and direct) what you know, I guess.