War-Dogs

If it hits all the right notes and conjures the right atmosphere, cinema can convince you that just about any way of life is a wild party that doesn’t end when the sun comes up. Martin Scorsese did it time and again, making us envy the lives of murderers and hoodlums, addicts and grifters. Todd Phillips’ new dramedy War Dogs has an enchanting melody and the rhythm will make you move your feet, but I’m not convinced this flick will have you envious of the reckless arms dealers of the world.

David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a 20-something nobody with a (ludicrously) beautiful girlfriend (Ana de Armas) who spends his days giving wealthy people massages in Miami Beach before returning to his modest apartment and his empty schemes.

But like a tropical storm, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) blows into David’s life with his idiotic laughter and pugnacious swagger, offering his old friend a dangerous, enticing proposition. Diveroli sells guns, bidding on small U.S. government contracts in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and making a bundle when he isn’t taking bong rips or accosting attractive strangers in cocktail dresses.

Before you can say Dick Cheney, David and Efraim are not only making millions, they’re finding themselves on the wrong side of shady characters in a shady industry. The soundtrack is propulsive and confident, frequently nodding to Scorsese’s opus on greed The Wolf of Wall Street. But Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) tale was darker, more insidious and more alluring. Based on Guy Lawson’s book Arms and the Dudes, this is a true story that has all the trappings of high-powered cinema, yet War Dogs is often gun-shy.

Jonah Hill shines as Efraim, conning and smirking as he guides David further and further into the eye of the storm. And Bradley Cooper delivers as a subdued heavyweight in the business of war. However, Teller, whose future is blinding, appears not quite committed to the material, or perhaps unconfident in his choices. Phillips, who has made a name for himself with blockbuster-friendly populist comedy, struggles to capture this compelling story’s headiest moments.

The result is often a movie that doesn’t commit to its emotional beats. It’s funny when it could be hilarious, it’s stilted when it could be touching. It checks off its requisite plot points (and unnecessary chapters) without tasking itself with posing something grander, something that demands you sit forward in your chair and marvel.

Like the company they co-found AEY (which stands for nothing) and the iconic images of Tony Montana (Al Pacino) brandishing his “little friend” in Scarface, which is Efraim’s idea of art, this is a movie about imitating the badasses of pop culture, not necessarily joining them. Which often takes the bullets out of the magazine, if you catch my drift.