What do you say when a film is so bad that you actually feel physical pain for everyone involved? You literally sit there for an hour-and-a-half and feel sorry for everyone who put such a hard effort into the making of the film, only to see it lay there like a lox when it's finally projected on the big screen. As a reviewer, there's not much more you can do than just endure it and hope to see a fleeting moment or two of quality, just so you don't think you've completely wasted your time.
That's all the thoughts that were going through my head as I watched War, Inc., an ambitious film that fails miserably at everything it attempts to be. As a comedy, it's not funny. As a satire, it's as subtle as a sledgehammer. And as a treatise on war, the corporatization of the military, and the horrors of pop stardom, it doesn't tell you anything that you don't already know if you just watch the 24-hour news channels or read the news online even a little bit.
In the movie, which debuted at Tribeca earlier this evening, John Cusack (who co-wrote and co-produced War, Inc.) plays Hauser, an undercover hit man who works for defense contractor Tamerlane. Tamerlane has been charged with running the U.S.-occupied nation of Turaqistan. The company's CEO (Dan Akyroyd), a former U.S. vice president who looks amazingly like Dick Cheney, sends Hauser there to kill Omar Sharif, an oil minister who wants to run an oil pipeline through Turaqistan, which will hurt Tamerlane's business interests there. Hauser is troubled by his past and his betrayal by his old CIA boss Walken (Ben Kingsley), so much so that he drinks shots of hot sauce to dull the pain. His cover in Turaqistan is to be in charge of a "freedom trade show," where he is assisted by fellow Tamerlane spy Marsha Dillon (Joan Cusack). He also has to facilitate the wedding of Turaqi pop star Yonica Babyyeah (Hillary Duff), as well as fend off the hard-nosed probing of reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), even though he's highly attracted to her.
Just from some of the character names, you can see that the film isn't very subtle. Aykroyd is Cheney; Turaqistan is Iraq; Tamerlane is Halliburton; Yonica is Britney Spears. Even Kingsley's British accent is covered (mostly) by a Dubya-esque country drawl. OK, we get it. War is evil, corporations are taking over the world, being a pop star blows, yadda, yadda, yadda. That message was given to us within the first five minutes of War, Inc. But instead of stopping there, it also hammers us over the head with advertising signs on tanks, a Wizard of Oz-like Viceroy that communicates from a bunker deep under a Popeye's fried chicken joint, and dense, quickly-spoken dialogue that might as well have been saying, "LOOK HOW CLEVER WE'RE BEING RIGHT NOW!"
First time feature director Joshua Seftel, who previously worked for various network news divisions and won awards for directing documentaries like Taking on the Kennedys and Lost and Found, tries to reign in the madness and give the movie some humanity. There is a scene, for instance, when Hauser talks to Natalie and Yonica about the pain in his past, where you can almost see these characters as human instead of the cartoons they've been up until that point, but that moment quickly gives way to the fights and explosions we saw earlier in the film. Whatever plot twists there are in the movie can be seen coming from its earliest scenes. And the aforementioned dialogue sounds like it came from an unfunny episode of Gilmore Girls, that's how dense and fast it is. Not only can you not understand it half the time, but the stuff you do catch makes you shrug and wonder what the point was. One character mumbles so much that all of his lines are subtitled, even though he's speaking English the entire time.
This has all the earmarks of a vanity project, a screenplay that Cusack, once he was able to get producers to sign on, ramrodded through without a lot of changes. If it had gone through the normal Hollywood rewrite process, a halfway-decent movie might have come out the other side. Tomei gives her usual feisty-sexy performance, despite the mouthfuls of stilted prose she needed to read; Duff tries to play against her wholesome image as Yonica, but her vaguely Middle Eastern accent is so thick, we barely know what the hell she's saying (and, no, she's not the one who got subtitles).
Seftel, Cusack, and company look like they wanted to make a 21st Century version of Dr. Strangelove, and all they did was make a film that made me appreciate the genius of the Peter Sellers/Stanley Kubrick collaboration all the more.