Imagine you're a guy who became somewhat famous, or perhaps even infamous, and you've just found out a major motion picture is going to be made based on that part of your life. Exciting!
"This is amazing!" you say to the producer. "Who's going to play me? Oooh. Let me guess. George Clooney? Leonardo DiCaprio?....Brad Pitt?!...No? OK, who then?"
"Close!" says the producer, "He's a huge star. I know you're going to be pleased. It's...JONAH HILL!"
You hang up the phone.
This is a conversation I like to imagine has happened four times in the last five years, as Jonah Hill has played four characters inspired by real people, in the films Moneyball, The Wolf of Wall Street, True Story, and now War Dogs. And while none of those real men resemble Clooney, Pitt, or, DiCaprio, they also don't look much like Jonah Hill.
It's not just the looks thing, though. Everyone loves a good character actor, including me! It's just that Hill has built such a career on playing really, really unlikable guys, that I imagine anyone learning he was going to be bringing their story to the screen would have to stifle a feeling of dread that for the rest of their lives, their name will be associated with another repulsive Jonah Hill character.
And he's pretty repulsive in War Dogs. He stars as Efraim Diveroli, a not so-nice Jewish boy from Miami who has figured out how to make millions via the U.S. government by bidding on contracts posted on FedBizOps, a government-run website where anyone can bid on government jobs, some of which include arms procurement. (It's actually a pretty fascinating site to peruse. I'm thinking of making a bid for this Removal of Accumulated Sludge job, who's with me?!)
Efraim takes advantage of the "gray market," which is basically the government saying, "We need a shit ton of weapons and ammo, and we don't care where you get it, as long as it's cheap. Also, don't let us know about it if it's not exactly legally acquired."
Efraim recruits his childhood friend David Packouz (Miles Teller), and it's David who is supposed to be the moral center of the film. He narrates the action, and is presented as a good guy who, after years working as a masseur and a failed venture to sell bed sheets to rest homes, is quickly seduced by Efraim and his wads of cash. As an added "nice guy" bonus he's also got a girlfriend (Ana de Armas) and child, although that girlfriend role isn't much more than her saying, "David, I trust you" and then "David, how COULD YOU?" over and over again.
But David and Efraim aren't really good guys. They make money off wars they both claim they're against, ripping off poor working stiffs in battle-beaten countries in the process. They hold meetings at strip clubs because of course they do. Efraim spends most of his earnings on hookers and blow.
And sure, antiheroes usually aren't nice guys. All you need to do is watch the movies director Todd Phillips constantly references over and over (particularly Scarface and GoodFellas) to know that. But when presented well, antiheroes are also complex, and David and Efraim are anything but. The closest thing to a moral dilemma David comes to is asking if what they're doing is legal, and then shrugging after Efraim says, "Well, it's not illegal." And Efraim? Well, he's just a flat out scumbag who thinks he's a lot funnier than he actually is.
Director Todd Phillips, best known for the Hangover films, really wants War Dogs to be as good as the movies that are his very clear influences. But his incessant use of freeze-frames, voiceovers, and classic rock songs is instead just a reminder that this has all been done before, with much more finesse and nuance, in much better films.