HOLLYWOOD — Last year, John Cusack starred in the small, moving drama “Grace Is Gone,” about a father struggling to explain to his daughters that their mother has been killed while serving in Iraq.
Cusack’s anger over the war inspired his involvement, but the film itself was by far the loveliest and subtlest of the many Iraq war movies that have come out. Still, few people saw it — a problem that has plagued every movie made on the subject.
This time, he’s taking a different approach: “War, Inc.” is a satirical comedy in which he stars and that he co-wrote and co-produced. But it’s unlikely that anyone will go see this one, either. “War, Inc.” certainly has some funny lines and ideas but as a whole, it’s too broad, too obvious and there’s very little that’s lovely or subtle about it.
As he did in 1997’s “Grosse Point Blank,” Cusack plays a world-weary hit man. This time, his name is Hauser and his latest assignment takes him to the nation of Turaqistan, which the United States is occupying in a war run entirely by a private corporation. Wouldn’t you know it, the head of the company is the former U.S. vice president, nyuk-nyuk. He’s played by Dan Aykroyd and when he first appears, he’s barking out orders while sitting on the toilet — something we really didn’t need to see.
Hauser must take out the Middle Eastern oil minister, Omar Sharif (yes that’s really his name), who is building an oil pipeline that would compete with the corporation’s interests.
While working undercover as an organizer of the garishly pro-American Brand USA trade show, Hauser becomes entangled with two women: left-wing journalist Natalie Hagelhuzen (Marisa Tomei) and Asian pop princess Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff), who is to get married at the event. (The characters’ names are some of the best bits in the script from Cusack, Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser.)
The parallel universe in this uneven first feature from director Joshua Seftel clearly resembles ours in many ways, but then often goes to hilariously absurd extremes. The Viceroy, who runs the Turaqistan green zone but is never seen, is actually hiding in a bunker behind the Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits. Instead he pops up on television monitors all over the place, his soothing drawl accompanied by images of traditional American virility: Babe Ruth, John Wayne and Ronald Reagan eventually give way to Donald Trump, William Shatner and even Pamela Anderson.
Hauser, with the help of an overly organized office assistant (Cusack’s sister, Joan, who can steal a scene with a raised eyebrow), tries to stay on target to assassinate the portly, nerdy Sharif (Lubomir Neikov). But he’s distracted by the oversexed Yonica’s advances as well as the rejections he suffers from the all-business Natalie. Cusack maintains his trademark understated delivery throughout, especially in a couple of ridiculous scenes with an underused Ben Kingsley as his former boss.
Cusack and Tomei also have an easy chemistry and some crackling banter at times, which only makes you wish for more consistently solid material for them. “War, Inc.” teeters about with tone, aiming to emulate the political bite of “Wag the Dog” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” (the camera angles are unmistakable), while balancing gross-out gags, deadpan humor, combat scenes and, eventually, sincerity.
Mainly, though, it just feels too dead-on and too soon since we’re still in the middle of the very war that’s being satirized, without much finesse. Yonica, wearing camouflage pants, a tiny T-shirt and too much eye liner, sings the tinny “I Want to Blow You Up” while surrounded by beefy back-up dancers. Sad but true, you could imagine hearing that song on the radio tomorrow.
“War, Inc.,” a First Look Studios release, is rated R for violence, language and brief sexual material. Running time: 107 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.