In Oliver Stone’s 1987 classic “Wall Street,” there is a quote in the final scene that sums up the entire movie: “Man looks in the abyss; there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment man finds his character, and that is what keeps him out of the abyss.” In Todd Phillip’s new release “War Dogs,” the film’s two protagonists – David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, played by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, respectively – let their greed and blind ambition blur the lines between legality and morality. This eventually leads both men to lose what remains of their character and to find themselves trapped in an abyss.
While the film attempts to establish itself as the heir to films like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Big Short,” it fails on every level. Not even the chemistry between likeable stoner archetypes Miles Teller and Jonah Hill can save this movie from cannibalizing itself.
On paper, “War DThe film features one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors: Hill, whose last big budget debogs” should be a grand slam, both critically and commercially. ut, 2014’s “22 Jump Street,” made over $300 million at the box office on an $85 million budget. Major studios and big-name directors can count on Hill to churn out more dramatic performances based on praise for his performances in films like “Moneyball” and “True Story,” which earned him critical acclaim and accolades. While Teller may not be as big of a draw as Hill, the actor is certainly one of the industry’s most versatile.
How, then, did this movie go so wrong? Phillips, whose previous comedies renewed the “bromantic” comedy genre, attempted to break out of the genre that made him famous. By tackling a script that had more emotion and depth than just superficial jokes, Phillips aimed to sprinkle comedic elements in what was otherwise a modern-day Greek tragedy. Phillips cast Teller, with whom he worked with on “Project X,” as lead and put him alongside Hill, who Phillips thought would be perfect based on his performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
But, unlike Scorsese’s films, known for their genre-bending narratives, “War Dogs” attempts to emulate the best drama and comedy films of recent memory, while also trying to differentiate itself from its predecessors. The film’s uneven direction and poor writing makes some scenes too outlandish when they should have been serious, and other scenes, which were supposed to be emotional and indicate character growth and development, lack the gut punch they desperately needed to make audiences feel for the characters and drive the film forward.
In short, Phillips tried to amalgamate two drastically different genres with a based-on-a-true-story narrartive too big and too grandiose to have actually happened. Instead, he created a film that struggles throughout to find a distinctive identity.
The characters in “War Dogs” are two-dimensional at best and hollow knockoffs of those in better films at worst. Hill was tasked with making an unlikeable character likeable. Hill went to great lengths to try to establish his character of Diveroli as someone different from his previous comedic roles on screen but failed to hit his mark. Teller was tasked with being the down-on-his-luck everyman with whom audiences could sympathize. Teller’s pot-smoking character Packouz came off as an opportunistic arms dealer who would rather lie to his pregnant girlfriend than find another line of work.
Maybe, under a different director, “War Dogs” could have had more heart and less of a forced comedic tone throughout. Stunning cinematography and an interesting premise could not save this Oscar bait from its impending doom. The chemistry between Teller and Hill was not enough to anchor the film’s story and left audiences looking into their own abyss when the credits rolled.