The Iraq War was a very divisive issue back in the early-to-mid 2000s. You were pretty much either on-board for the invasion or you thought President Bush was making the stupidest move of his presidency (there would be a lot of competition for that). This film, however, doesn’t really take much of a position on that other than having characters at its helm that financially benefit off the war no matter what side is winning. Much like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot earlier this year, this is another war film that takes a look at characters that exist in that world but that are not necessarily fighting for either side.
Based on a true story, this film concerns a young man named David Packouz (Miles Teller), who works as a massage therapist for rich people in Miami Beach. His wife, Iz (Ana de Armas) is pregnant and he is an emotional mess trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Enter his old best friend, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who seems to possess the confidence that David lacks. At first, he purchases weapons from police auctions and sells them on the internet but now he has a better idea. Efraim bids on lower-end military contracts and then makes money from selling guns to the United States Army. He gets David on-board and what starts out as a profitable business soon exceeds what they could have ever expected and they are making obscene amounts of money. Of course, things eventually turn sour and friendships and loyalty are ultimately tested.
One thing I want to say right off the bat is that whoever did the marketing for this film should be fired. The film’s trailers boast that it is made by the director of The Hangover trilogy (Todd Phillips) and while that is true, it is not anything like that film and is the furthest thing removed from a broad comedy. In fact, the only thing it seems to have in common with those movies is Phillips himself and the fact that he cast Bradley Cooper in the film. The movie is partly a comedy, yes, but it is more a comedy that comes out of situations and characters rather than one that is constantly reaching for belly laughs and over-the-top humour. That being said, I enjoyed this film a great deal.
The main thing to take away from this is Jonah Hill and Miles Teller’s respective performances. Teller is our lead and plays the put-upon character for the most part. He is pretty likeable and does well as the everyman that suddenly hits it big with this business enterprise. However, one thing that is slightly refreshing is that he doesn’t turn into a huge prick. In most films like this we see the protagonist suddenly become engulfed with money and fame and then completely change but instead he just becomes more business-oriented and starts to neglect his wife and child a bit. Jonah Hill steals the movie with an awesome performance. Hill is not a very genuine person as he is loud, obnoxious and likes to raise a problem when there is seemingly no need for it. His fake personas are so believable that you almost side with him for a moment until you remember what a piece of shit he is in the film. I hope he at least gets a Golden Globe nomination for it. I also enjoyed Ana de Armas as Teller’s wife even though she has limited screentime. It was nice to see Kevin Pollak in a major studio picture again and I’ve always forgotten how likeable he can be as well. Here he is more subtle and nuanced rather than his usual comedic roles. I don’t want to say too much about Bradley Cooper because most of his part is mired in secrecy but I will just mention that there were several times when I forgot it was Cooper. I’m not used to seeing him play these sort of deeper character parts; he also elevates any scene in which he appears. It’s a pretty solid cast from top to bottom.
The writing is sharp and Hill and Teller get to spout some pretty good lines between the two of them when Jonah isn’t busy doing actual lines off his desk in the office. The characters are easily defined and separated from each other. Teller is more of an introverted character (but not recluse-like or anything) while Hill is brash, cocky and over-the-top. Early in the film, we see Hill presented as someone that will take on any personality traits that he believes will have a positive impact on whomever he is interacting with at the time. This is a trait that Teller admires for most of the film but we quickly see it begin to wear thin as the film progresses. It is not spelled out for us but rather we see through their interactions that they are becoming less jovial and through their dialogue, we notice their friendship may not be as solid as they claimed earlier in the film. The script is also good at pointing out the awful nature of the way in which the American government can operate sometimes as well as the insipid characteristics that people like David and Efraim must adopt so that they can become successful.
Phillips’ directing is snappy much like his earlier efforts. He is a solid director. Even in comedies like The Hangover, you can see he has a lot of talent when it comes to directing action and that continued to get better by the time he got to the end of his trilogy. The film is not loaded with action but when those scenes come, they are very well-shot and everything looks slick.
This is a home run as far as I’m concerned. Just don’t expect a raucous laugh riot but rather a funny, observant character study and socio-political satire that hits most of the right notes.
* (Brutal; the worst rating)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)