'War, Inc.': For Cusack, Satire Proves to Be a Losing Battle

John Cusack (with sister Joan) overswings in attempting social commentary.
John Cusack (with sister Joan) overswings in attempting social commentary. (By Simon Versano -- First Look Studios)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 27, 2008

If it's true, as the showbiz saying goes, that dying is easy and comedy is hard, then political satire is akin to breaking rocks in the hot sun. In "War, Inc.," deadpan actor John Cusack does his best to mine sharp polemical material from the rich vein of the Iraq war and the appalling combination of bumbling and malfeasance with which it was launched and executed. But the film, in attempting to ridicule Bush-era imperialism and privatization, finally just settles for being ridiculous itself.

Cusack plays Blackwateresque operative Brand Hauser, who arrives in the fictional Turaquistan to off the country's leader, Omar Sharif (really). Subsisting on a diet of hot sauce and bourbon, taking his orders from a faceless, Ozlike boss, Hauser finds himself in the center of a military-corporate trade show, a burlesque of cynicism, profiteering and pseudo-patriotism.

"War, Inc.," which Cusack co-wrote with Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser, chugs along on a fuel of gonzo wit and righteous indignation, occasionally letting loose with some darkly hilarious images: When Hauser lands in Turaqistan, he finds a strip-malled hell, plastered with posters for Coke, Popeye's Chicken and his own company's propaganda ("We're Building Happiness," "We're Building Hope"). At one point he observes a chorus line of amputees showing off Rockette-worthy prosthetic legs -- an example, his helpful assistant explains, of "American know-how alleviating the suffering it creates."

Cusack was reportedly inspired by one of Naomi Klein's articles in the Nation when writing "War, Inc.," and fans of Klein will no doubt recognize her in a skeptical journalist named Natalie, played by Marisa Tomei. The real surprise here is Hilary Duff, who delivers a surprisingly effective portrayal of a Turaqui pop tart named Yonica Babyyeah. Eventually, the unlikely threesome of Brand, Natalie and Yonica winds up in an abandoned mansion with a Turaqi film crew. But by that time "War, Inc." has careered off its own uneven rails, first into sheer preposterousness, then into unearned sentimentality. (A sequence involving a videotaped beheading veers into tone-deaf tastelessness.)

Too often, Cusack and his team are far too content to be silly rather than stingingly on point: The sight of Dan Aykroyd on a toilet, spewing profanity in a Cheney-like cameo, is small, scatological beer compared with George C. Scott slapping his bare stomach and barking about the mineshaft gap in "Dr. Strangelove." What might have had the teeth of "Dr. Strangelove," or Hunter S. Thompson at his finest, finally loses its bite in taking too many digressions and cheap 'n' easy shots. Still, for critics of the war with an appetite for red meat, "War, Inc." will prove filling, if not quite completely nourishing.

War, Inc. (106 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, profanity and brief sexual material.

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