War Dogs, out last Friday, is a lot of things: The world’s first boring Miles Teller performance. A last-place finish in the mid-2010s’ Wolf of Wall Street Lookalike Contest. A bad L at the wrong time in the Phillips / McKay / Apatow “take me seriously” wars. And … probably not a hit.
But most of all, War Dogs is the mark of a Todd Phillips Movie achieving — well, if not quite self-awareness, then at least self-judgment. It is Phillips coming face-to-face with the festering question of his suddenly sort of vast universe:
Are any of the friends in Todd Phillips movies actually friends?
The two major Todd Phillips Friendship Documents are Old School and The Hangover, and they’re structurally pretty similar. Each film features a core friendship, and each friendship features three friends playing three distinct roles: the straight man, the dick, and the moral center.
Phillips’s straight men are “straight” to the point of insufferability. He doesn’t just portray these characters as uptight — he diagnoses them with a full-blown disease of uptightness. (Uptightness is a rare condition curable only by selective exposure to Todd Phillips movies. Side effects may include: Upset stomach; quoting dialogue as a basic form of communication; nostalgia for that handful of years when we were all suddenly, like, “Yeah, sure — Ben Stiller.”) Phillips views his straight men skeptically, if not with near-outright scorn: These are the guys who keep the other guys from having the fun. Old School’s Mitch (Luke Wilson) is probably the most likable straight man in the Phillips Universe — but he’s still cut from that cloth: reluctant guest of honor; ambivalent FRATERNITY FOR ADULTS (Is Old School the most Bush era movie ever made?) founder; person who can’t get on Juliette Lewis’s level.
The most enduring quality of the Phillips Straight Man, though, isn’t what he is — it’s what he isn’t: a hero. That’s because the hero in a Todd Phillips movie is always The Dick.
In Old School, The Dick is Beanie — you know him better as the role that Vince Vaughn has been eating out on for the past dozen or so years. The Toy Story 2 to Swingers’ Toy Story of Vince Vaughn’s Anthropomorphized Speech Pattern. OK, fuck it: the guy who says “Earmuffs.” Beanie is rich, selfish, and — in the sort of strangely conservative “gotcha” twist that Phillips loves — married with children. And he is the moral bellwether for the Phillips Universe overall.
Beanie is a hurricane: disregarding his friends’ stresses, pursuing his own pleasures, laying — fairly benign — waste to pretty much everything in his path. But he’s also the adhesive that holds their group together by sheer force of id. (They’re all miserable at the beginning of the movie, and doing great by the end — what more do you need?) Beanie is what Phillips needs him to be: a soccer dad; a schmuck whom Snoop Dogg owes a favor; a dick so charismatic you can forgive Todd Phillips for wanting you to want to be him.
And yet the biggest reason Old School works as a friendship movie is that, even while valorizing Beanie, Phillips knows not to center him. Phillips knows enough to give the film (and its blank check of shenanigans) an actual moral center: a reminder that, yeah, all things considered, we’re dealing with pretty good dudes.
And neither Mitch nor Beanie is where that warmth comes from. Instead, it’s Frank (not a genius), played by Will Ferrell (a genius). Frank is Old School’s friendship’s soft center, and he is as close as Phillips’s judgment gets to neutral: neither a high-strung killer of buzz (who needs a lesson), nor an asshole agent of chaos (who needs to teach one). Frank likes beer, and he’s good at it. He loves his wife, and he’s bad at it. He’s just Frank, a tank, a sweetheart: He’ll do one. He shouldn’t. He’ll do one more. He’s a good friend.
The Hangover trilogy is essentially the worst tendencies of Old School, minus any sense of the best tendencies of Old School, put in a blender, and set to “let’s get fucking rich.” The bonds of “we go way back”-ness are flimsier (no one has disproved my “Justin Bartha has no friends and these are his best available acquaintances” theory yet). The jokes are meaner (“Paging Dr. Faggot”). And the performances are a failed attempt to compensate for the mess that results.
It doesn’t work. Zach Galifianakis’s Alan replaces Frank’s manchild with an actual child, and an idiot-sweetheart with an idiot. It becomes a predictable paradox: Phillips directs Alan for more jokes … but of course gets fewer. Ed Helms’s Stu course-corrects on an even cruder plane: He’s just an annoying person. Taken together, these shifts feel purposeful: a thesis that, the less sympathetic the good guys are, the meaner we’ll allow the movie — and its dick — to be.
Bradley Cooper’s Phil is the dick. He’s the devil on the group’s shoulder — and Phillips’s hero, as far as it goes. Like everything else in The Hangover, he’s hardly original: He even retreads Vaughn-as-Beanie’s “He has a family! Now who’s the asshole” non-twist. But whereas Beanie was a dick out of, like, The Natural Plight of Boredom Endured By Excessively Charismatic People … Phil is a dick out of — oh my god, he’s just a dick.
One of the running “gags” of The Hangover is that Stu’s girlfriend is awful — and that Phil is trying to get him to see the light and break up with her. And whether she is awful or isn’t (she cheated on him … probably; I think that’s most of the evidence) is neither here nor there. What’s of note is how gleeful Phil is in the takedown of their relationship.
Stu: Phil, we’ve been dating for three years. It’s time. This is how it works.
Phil: A, that is bullshit. And B, she is a complete bitch.
Doug: Hey, that’s his fiancée.
Phil: What? It’s true. It’s true. You know it’s true. … He’s in denial. Not to mention, she fucked a sailor.
It’s a weird scene, and a weird tone — one that lasts throughout the trilogy. If Old School sees Vaughn’s Beanie as the light push its straight man needs, then The Hangover comes to see Cooper’s Phil as a gun to the head. Stu leaves his girlfriend; the group toasts and celebrates; he seems miserable. The vibe is all very, “Wait, why are we doing this?” Why are they friends? Because they’re friends. It’s self-reflexive. It’s friendship as the increasingly unpleasant means to an increasingly unpleasant end. It’s endurance, accumulation, abstract memory — something you inherit in your head after a night of getting too fucked up.
If Old School is Todd Phillips shipping lovable assholes, and The Hangover is Todd Phillips shipping hateable assholes, then War Dogs might be best viewed as Todd Phillips coming to terms with what his problem has been all this time: shipping anyone at all.
In War Dogs, Efraim (Jonah Hill) and David (Miles Teller) are childhood friends who’ve lost touch — only to reunite in their 20s when they run into each other at a funeral. A post-funeral drive for some weed becomes a heart-to-heart, during which David (a struggling massage therapist) opens up to Efraim (a successful gun-runner) about how he misses the old days: back in high school, when they “didn’t take shit from anyone.” It’s a nice moment, and won’t be unfamiliar to someone who’s seen a Todd Phillips movie. This is one bro laying bare his insecurities, and connecting with another. This is Todd Phillips doing friendship.
Except it’s pretty much bullshit. As it turns out, Efraim didn’t “run into” David at the funeral; he went to the funeral to run into David. And Efraim didn’t take David for “a drive” just to catch up as friends; he took him for a drive — in his nice car, with a trunk full of batshit guns — to sell him on his lifestyle. Which is to say, on his business. The film is sure to drive this point home: David is being recruited. That he might also be gaining a friend is true only to the extent that friendship is, itself, a recruitment.
And while the status of War Dogs as a drama has been a bit overblown (if “drama” just means “unfunny Todd Phillips movie,” then he’s already made a few), the specific dynamic between Efraim and David scans very much as drama, earned. It’s where Phillips delivers on his premise: What would it be like to go into business WITH YOUR DOUCHEBAG GUN-RUNNER FRIEND? Well: One, you might die (“50/50”); and two, maybe take 10 seconds and consider the possibility that your douchebag gun-runner friend isn’t your friend. For the first time, Phillips’s camera seems alienated by its own dick creation. And for the first time, he makes the sensible bet: against the coolest guy in the room.
It’s on account of this bet that War Dogs’ final Hill-and-Teller moment might be the most interesting scene Todd Phillips has ever filmed. When the scene arrives, David and Efraim have fallen out — are completely severed, as friends and business partners both. By chance, they meet on the elevator in their building. And on the surface, of course, this moment is classic Phillips. This is the scene where they hash it out. Where they bring it in. Where Those Who Were Once Bros become Bros Once More. This is the Todd Phillips playbook, and that’s the play.
Except in War Dogs, crucially, Phillips audibles: Efraim begins to apologize to David for being a crooked business partner … a shitty person … a bad friend. But David cuts him off, tells Efraim that he doesn’t believe a word of it. David theorizes that they’ve actually never been friends, and dares Efraim to come clean and agree. And Efraim does. He agrees. He gives the slowest, smuggest, most dagger of a smile — Hill is great in this scene — and admits it. David and Efraim are not friends. It’s not friendship. It’s just business.
Teller then punches Hill in the face — and one gets the sense here that his David might as well be Phillips himself. One senses that, after a career of playing the cool kid, and of celebrating his jerks as his heroes, Todd Phillips is finally ready to focus on the straight man and the moral center. That, in ostensibly making his Drama About Business, Todd Phillips has finally managed to make his Comedy About Friendship. And that, after all of these years, and all of those movies, Todd Phillips has finally figured out just what it is about friendship he has to say:
Don’t be a fucking dick.