If there’s anything to be learned from “War, Inc.,” it’s about the shelf life of satire, and how parody simply can’t be too plausible. A blackly comic take on the first totally outsourced war? We’re too close to being in one right now, which makes this John Cusack vehicle too close for comfort. It’s also so close to being funny you can just about taste it — just about. Name cast featuring Cusack, Marisa Tomei, Ben Kingsley and Hilary Duff will mean something, but word of mouth will be poisonous. Already playing in select Toronto theaters, pic opens May 23 Stateside.
In what was obviously a project near and dear to Cusack’s heart, the actor (who also co-scripted and produced) plays Hauser, the classic troubled hitman (see “Grosse Pointe Blank”) who drowns his sorrows with straight shots of hot sauce. (The label of one, Napalm Girl, features a silhouette of the famous Vietnam-era photo of the girl running naked from her napalmed village. So we’re not exactly talking Noel Coward here.)
Hauser has been assigned by the former U.S. vice president (Dan Aykoryd, who plays one of his two scenes from a toilet) to kill Omar Sharif (Lyubomir Neikov), oil minister of the fictional Turaqistan, where the ex-VP’s company, Tamerlane, has been fighting insurgents. Governments aren’t really involved, just corporations — and hired assassins.
The names are among the funnier things in the film. Hilary Duff plays Yonica Babyyeah, an insufferably spoiled Turaqistani pop star; Marisa Tomei is lefty reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen (an obvious spoof of Katrina vanden Heuvel, lefty publisher of the Nation). Aykroyd is so obviously Dick Cheney that any name play would be redundant. But Cusack’s contact at Tamerlane HQ? Marsha Dillon (Joan Cusack), the funniest person in the entire Mideast.
In Turaqistan, Hauser goes undercover as organizer of the Brand USA Trade Show, an exercise in tackiness whose centerpiece is Yonica’s wedding. Hauser keeps trying to take out Omar, with no success, and in the interim has to deal not just with Yonica’s posse of wannabe gangstas, but also Turaqistani insurgents with their own agendas. Some of the more exhilarating scenes involve secret agent Cusack dispatching bad guys with guns, clubs and kung fu.
“War, Inc.” feels a little bit like a ’60s comedy that would have starred Alan Arkin; now, it seems too late. Of course, so would “Wag the Dog” if it came out now. But that film’s timing was much better, and its jokes weren’t quite as obscure, or its timing so off.
Helmer Joshua Seftel has worked almost exclusively in nonfiction prior to “War Inc.” — he made the first-rate “Taking on the Kennedys” in 1996 — so his lack of comedic instinct is perhaps understandable. But even jokes that might have worked otherwise get swallowed up by dialogue, or simply aren’t allowed the breathing room necessary to evoke a laugh.