Sunday, December 28, 2008

War, Inc. A Nasty Little Confection of Bush-Era Irony

Let's start here: I am a HUGE fan of Mark Leyner, author of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist and other influential and silly works of postmodernist fiction that were quite formative in my student years and beyond.

So I was a bit surprised and amused to see him credited (along with Jeremy Pikser and John Cusack) with the story of War, Inc. - a kind of postmodernist fantasia critique of the war in Iraq featuring both John and Joan Cusack.

I'm unaware of any other movie that stars both Cusacks so if only for that reason - if not for the delicious possibility of an Iraq war satire - this movie caught my eye.

The trouble I have with this movie starts, however, with the first posit of Cusack's character, Brand Hauser, hired as a reluctant assassin by a Cheney-esque Dan Aykroyd (who's quite good, by the way) to stage a fake trade show in the not-very-well-disguised-Iraq-stand-in of Turaqistan as a cover to assassinate some south-Asian oil baron. Cusack is neither very believable nor very funny as the assassin with a past, so it's hard from the start to get a read on exactly the point of view this satire is taking. And while complicated, incredible setups are a staple of good satire, this one throws a bit too many balls into the air and pays little attention to where they eventually fall.

Now, I didn't know that all this was co-written by Leyner until the end...which sheds a bit of light, perhaps, on my confusion, as Leyner is a bit of a point-of-view-less satirist who's specialty is undermining easy moral platitudes. What works in fiction, however, seems a bit half-baked in the world of the movies, which requires fully realized sets, makeup, camera framing, and acting to create a fully flushed out experience...something, again, that Leyner's writing intentionally avoids. So it's easier, in retrospect, to see how this bit of anti-Bush fluff went off the rails.

For one thing, they could have gotten a little bigger movie budget, so as to create a believable alternative reality. The movie claims to be set in "The Twenty-First Century," which could easily be today, yet the nods to futuristic technology (i.e., private planes and on-board voice-activated therapists) are hard, exactly, to ascribe to some near future, since everything on the screen looks completely ordinary.

There are some satiric laughs, nevertheless. Joan Cusack lends her wonderfully manic persona to a fellow spy operating under cover as a corporate communications director...and the movie gets the send up of corporate trade-show culture just right (I imagine this movie to be the kind of fever dream that some extremely board marketing executive cooks up while snoozing through yet another Oracle conference). I might take a moment to interject here that I actually once attended a business networking meeting (this was around 2003, right after the "Mission Accomplished" banner and before the full-on insurgency) where someone stood up and presented to the assembled room all of the amazing business opportunities of the New Iraq, and how we would be insane to not head over there right now and set up shop - so I DO appreciate where the central conceit of this film is coming from. It also has some nice send ups of Arab terrorist kidnap culture (if there is such a thing) and the world's rather shallow sense of American bling envy.

But as to where all this is going, even after seeing the movie, I have to confess is anyone's guess. Very little use is made of film innovations like cinematography, set creation, or convincing acting. I think the same effect could have been achieved by staging it all in a high school gymnasium. And Ben Kingsly's mysterious character - whoever or whatever he's meant to be - has absolutely no integration into the movie whatsoever. So the whole thing ends with a great big Huh?

Which is a shame, because I think the idea of a satire of the Bush Iraq war fiasco has tremendous merit. I wish this movie would have been able to pull it off.

Maybe the problem is simply this: how can anyone create a satire of the Bush Administration that's even half-way as absurd as the real thing?

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