“War, Inc.”, a new political satire co-written by and starring John Cusack, reminds us that it’s possible to agree with a movie’s agenda while simultaneously despising the movie itself. A thuddingly heavy-handed comedy about corporations profiting both from wars and from their aftermath, the film contains not one honest-to-goodness laugh. Any random five minutes from lefty talk-radio hosts Rachel Maddow’s or Randi Rhodes’ shows would provide more entertainment and deeper insight into current events.
“War, Inc.” feels somewhat like an unofficial sequel to “Grosse Pointe Blank” — the characters’ names are different, but Cusack once again stars as a conflicted killer-for-hire, with Joan Cusack tagging along as his hyper-efficient associate. This time, the killer is named Brand Hauser, and he works for the nefarious and far-reaching Tamerlane Corporation, which has just successfully staged the first war to be fought entirely by corporate-backed mercenaries in the fictional nation of Turaqistan.
Tamerlane’s CEO, who happens to also be the former vice-president (Dan Aykroyd, another “Grosse Pointe Blank” alum), sends Hauser to Turaqistan to bump off a local leader who dares to want a cut of oil profits coming out of his nation. Hauser’s cover will be to act as the producer of a trade show that will allow corporations to bid on the lucrative contracts involved in rebuilding the flattened Turaqistan.
Left-leaning journalist Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei) tries to dig past the Tamerlane happy-talk to find out what’s really going on in the war-torn nation, and she makes the numbed Hauser feel genuine emotion for the first time since the death of his wife. Also complicating matters is pop tart Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff), the Britney Spears of the Middle East, whose wedding to the son of a powerful oil sheikh will mark the finale of the trade show.
“War, Inc.” raises up any number of juicy targets for satire but fails to capitalize on any of them. John Cusack and his collaborators (co-writers Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser, director Josh Seftel) let the gags fall to the floor like so many unexploded grenades, and even audiences who are ideologically inclined to enjoy the movie will find themselves wincing and then yawning over its horrible execution.
John Cusack has done this man-sleepwalking-through-life bit way too often now, and it’s lost whatever charm it once had. Joan Cusack, at least, makes an obvious effort to make this lackluster material sparkle, but her valiant efforts are to no avail. There are occasional glimmers of wit from Duff, but it’s only the seasoned Tomei who succeeds in creating anything resembling a coherent character here. (The surname “Hegalhuzen” may seem like a desperate attempt to get a laugh from a funny name, but it’s more likely that the filmmakers are referencing The Nation magazine’s Katerina Vanden Heuvel.)
As if the grim efforts to be funny weren’t painful enough, “War, Inc.” also provides two third-act twists that should be painfully obvious to anyone who hasn’t yet fallen asleep — which, to the film’s defense, probably equals about half the audience.