(On Cable TV, April 2017) I had too-high hopes that War Dogs would be another strong entry in my pet geo-sardonicism subgenre—geopolitics treated with a good dose of sardonic humour as a way to make sense of an increasingly unlikely world, an updated Lord of War for the post-Iraq generation. I half-got my wish. For one thing, War Dogs is, indeed, a comedy taking on geopolitical issues: namely arms dealing and the unlikely profits coming from the unintended consequences of well-meaning government procurement policy changes. Miles Teller is the narrator and protagonist of an incredible story (partially based on real events) in which an underachieving young man ends up putting together multimillion dollar deals for the government’s war efforts. His patter, especially in the film’s first half, is interesting and damning at once. War Dogs starts out well with a first half filled with comedy, rags-to-riches incidents, and incredible war stories. It plays a bit like one of Ben Mezrich’s American-hustler books. Director Todd Philips knows how to present a film with pop and irreverent energy, and Jonah Hill does bring a degree of uncomfortable energy to the proceedings. Alas, this sugar high doesn’t last as the movie predictably settles into something far less fun in its latter half. War Dogs has to punish its villains, and those include our two protagonists. Their adventures get a great deal less fun as they turn on each other, renege on deals and get caught up in a federal investigation. There is no triumphant ending in store—at best, a soft (ish) landing. Still, War Dogs is a delight for those moment in which it does works. If the film’s not quite successful, then so be it—I’d rather see an imperfect take on procurement corruption than a more successful vapid comedy.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) As someone who had a mixed reaction to The Hangover and an annoyed one to its nearly photocopied sequel, I’m almost unsurprised to find out that I don’t completely dislike the third installment in “The Wolfpack trilogy”. At the very least, it disposes with the narrative scheme of the first two films and attempts something new. It also brings back Ken Jeong’s unleashed character, a force of chaos that ends up driving much of the entire plot. The result certainly has its moments, as it zigzags from Los Angeles to Tijuana to (much to the characters’ dismay) Las Vegas once again. The comedy certainly is of the hit-and-miss type: some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t and viewers just have to wait for the next gag if one isn’t to their liking. With this series, it doesn’t pay off to be offended, but it actually takes a while (arguably until after the credits) for this third Hangover to get overly graphic. Perhaps the film is mellowing along its characters; perhaps it’s a recognition that you can only go back to the same raunchy source so many times. Much of the film’s success has to go to the actors under Todd Phillips’ direction. Bradley Cooper is still as preposterously charming as ever, while Ed Helms continues to undermine his own straight-laced image. Zach Galifianakis remains annoying, but even that annoyance seems lessened here, largely because his character does get a bit of emotional growth along the way. The Hangover III benefits from a few good comic set-pieces (the best of which taking place atop Caesar’s Palace), and manages to re-use a lot of material from the previous two film, even if only in passing. The result may not be great cinema, but it’s decent comedy and it brings this would-be trilogy to a decent close. It could have been worse, or at least far more similar to the first two films.
(On DVD, June 2011) I’m just as surprised as anyone else that I lasted two years without seeing one of the cultural movie touchstones of 2009, the R-rated comedy that affirmed the dominance of the arrested-male-teenager as the comic archetype of the time. I have little patience with the form and didn’t expect to like The Hangover much, but as it happens there’s quite a bit to like in its cheerfully anarchic approach to plotting, as it uses flashbacks, comic detective work and wild characters in one big pile. Todd Phillips’ directing is assured and neatly guides viewers through a more complex narrative structure than is the norm for comedies. It helps a lot that the characters are interesting in their own right: Bradley Cooper’s natural charisma transforms a borderline-repellent role into something nearly cool, while Ed Helms proves a lot less annoying than I’d initially guessed and Ken Jeong supercharges every single scene he’s in. Small roles for Mike Tyson (not someone I’d hold as a role model) and Jeffrey Tambor also work well, although I still can’t think of Zach Galifianakis as anything but obnoxious (and discover retroactively that he played the same character in Due Date). For all of the icky what-happens-in-Vegas immaturity, there are a few chuckles here and there: it’s hard to begrudge a film as likable as it is foul-mouthed. Alas, I didn’t go completely crazy for the film: Fonder flashbacks to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (curiously unacknowledged) and the far funnier absurdist amnesia masterpiece Dude, Where’s My Car? held me back. But comedy’s notoriously subjective, and it’s not as if I actually disliked The Hangover: I just found it a bit underwhelming, most likely conceived from assumptions that I don’t share.
(On TV, sometime around July 2010) If anyone wonders why I’m not much of a Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn fan, let me point at Old School and shrug. Their chosen screen personae are that of overgrown men-child prone to temper tantrums and a shocking lack of self-reflection, and this movie allows that persona to run wild without constraints. It is, literally, about thirty-something adults regressing to an earlier stage of development, starting a fraternity to relive their college glory days. Is it fitfully entertaining? Of course. Is it a reprehensible anthem to the arrested man-childs? Somewhat. Is it designed for me? Absolutely not. In retrospect, this may be most notable as an early prototype of the kind of movie that would come to dominate American film comedy by 2009 (the link to The Hangover, with common director Todd Phillips, is certainly not accidental.) Otherwise, there isn’t much to say about Old School: It’s pretty much what you can expect from the premise or trailer, for better or for worse.