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Overbroad Satire Misses More than it Hits
by Mel Valentin on Jun 13, 2008
A personal project for writer-producer-actor John Cusack (High Fidelity, Gross Pointe Blank, Say Anything), War, Inc. is a political satire that’s acerbic, caustic, mordant, but hampered by a seen-that, know-that-already feeling and hit-or-miss gags that undercut its anti-war, anti-corporate, anti-corruption themes. War, Inc. isn’t going to convince anyone who isn’t already on the center-left of the political divide to switch political allegiances and vote differently in the upcoming presidential election, but what the film does have is John Cusack's engaging, sympathetic performance with an able assist from sister Joan and a strong supporting cast.
Cusack and his co-writers, Jeremy Pikser (Bullworth) and novelist Mark Leyner (The Tetherballs of Bougainvill, Babe, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist), set War, Inc. in a near-future where corporations openly invade, occupy, and plunder Middle-Eastern countries without the threat of international sanction. The former U.S. vice president (Dan Aykroyd) and current CEO of Tamerlane (read: Halliburton), informs former CIA hitman-turned-mercenary Brand Hauser (John Cusack) that the invasion and occupation of Turaqistan (a.k.a. Iraq) is “the first war ever to be 100% outsourced to private enterprise.” The VP tasks Hauser with eliminating a Turaqi oil minister, Omar Sharif (Lyubomir Neikov), who’s attempting to build an oil pipeline across Turaqistan. To get close to Sharif, Hauser will go undercover as a producer for a Tamerlane-sponsored trade show, “Brand USA” that will culminate with the wedding of a Central Asian pop star, Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff).
In Turaqistan, Hauser meets his Tamerlane assistant, Marsha Dillon (Joan Cusack), a communications and interrogation specialist, the new Viceroy, whose identity is kept offscreen, and Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), a left-leaning journalist eager to expose Tamerlane’s corrupt dealings in Turaqistan. To do that, though, she has to leave the Emerald City (a.k.a., the Green Zone in Iraq), but can’t without a pass that only a few people can obtain. As the opportunities to eliminate Sharif come and go, Hauser slips into a mid-life crisis, complete with flashbacks to his CIA days and his handler, Walken (Ben Kingsley), who balked when Hauser decided to leave the CIA. Handling Yonica’s upcoming nuptials to the gangsta-wannabe son of a wealthy Arab proves to be even more of a headache for the increasingly perplexed Hauser.
Unfortunately, War, Inc. feels like a political satire whose time (2004-2005) has come and gone. It doesn’t shed any new light on the malfeasance of the current administration or its corporate collaborators. Halliburton’s relationship to former CEO-turned-vice president Cheney, extravagant, no-bid contracts handed out to the same corporations, blatant government manipulation of the traditional media (and their blissful complicity), and American and non-American lives treated like commodities that can be brought, sold, or otherwise disposed of, are all obvious to anyone willing to follow non-traditional media and actively reading or listening to the news for the last several years.
Cusack’s done the sad sack, hitman-with-a-conscience bit before (and better) in Gross Pointe Blank. It’s probably not surprising that Dan Aykroyd, the irredeemable hitman in Gross Pointe Blank plays the villainous, modeled-on-Dick-Cheney former vice president here. Aykroyd obviously relishes playing such a scurrilous, malevolent character, but his role is just a step above a cameo here. The real villain role is left to Ben Kingsley’s amoral CIA chief seen in flashbacks. Marisa Tomei fares poorly in an underwritten role. The rest of the cast, including Joan Cusack (John’s sister) and Hilary Duff (taking an obvious, if much needed, risk to bolster her career) are never less than watchable even if, as with the lead characters, they’re fighting a screenplay that prefers broad strokes and obvious humor to than psychological complexity or depth.
When War, Inc. is on, it shows glimmers of what could have been: a chorus line of prosthetic-wearing women (courtesy of Tamerlane, who made the bombs that left them limbless), advertisements on the side of Humvees and tanks, Western-style, fast food restaurants and malls, the hyper-sexualized, Britney Spears-look-alike pop diva, and the ubiquitous electronic screens that morph from one American pop culture icon or celebrity to another, and on down to the name the CIA has for invading and occupying Middle East countries, Operation Chickenhawk (so named for right-wing cheerleaders who vigorously advocate for war but refuse to serve themselves). Unfortunately, too much of War, Inc. limps along between long, expository, dialogue scenes, flat, uninventive gags and equally unimaginative set pieces. Cusack and his collaborators deserve points for trying.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
by Mel Valentin on Jun 13, 2008