Let's talk about Jonah Hill's laugh in War Dogs. Early in Todd Phillips's new movie, which tells the story of Ephraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) — two real-life 20-somethings who supplied the United States government with guns during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — the shady, bombastic Diveroli tries to buy weed from a bunch of guys sitting on the hood of a car in Miami. When the dealers accept his money and don't bother supplying the stuff, Diveroli goes to the trunk of his car, pulls out a submachine gun, and crazily fires shots into the air, sending his tormenters running. Afterward, gun dangling by his side, Hill–as–Diveroli shuffles triumphantly and lets out this laugh, a sort of unhinged hyena laugh, a high-pitched thing that sounds like a drunken teakettle, or Brad Pitt on helium and tranquilizers. It's bracing and incredible in equal measure, and most of all, it works.
Since Superbad in 2007, Hill has been broadly defined by parallel narratives: On one hand, he was viewed by the mainstream public as a goofball; on the other, he racked up two Oscar nominations with work that established him among cinephiles as one of our more talented young actors. Focusing on that dichotomy, Molly Young's excellent New York Times profile of Hill cast him as fundamentally misunderstood, the victim not only of the bias that greets many comic actors who try to go dramatic, but also of a weird overarching suspicion of Hill as a person.
The reason this conversation is happening right now is because War Dogs provides a perfect vehicle for dispelling any confusion about Hill's abilities as an actor. Though it's technically an action-comedy, the movie's most effective threads — the power of brazen fraud; the logistics of shipping guns around the world; the craven willingness of the American government to look the other way — cast it as something closer to a social satire, albeit one with zero interest in moralizing. And while Hill's part as Efraim Diveroli is essentially comedic — Teller's Packouz is the straight man, and narrator — he steals the show not just by providing most of the film's funniest and most bracing moments, but also by giving it a dramatic and charismatic center.
In the past, Hill's characters, like Superbad's Seth and The Wolf of Wall Street's Donnie Azoff, have been so defined by their own anxiety that they spend much of their time running from it. Here, Hill has a new challenge: He must play a human being whose self-hatred is so complete that he's turned it into the ultimate free pass, granting him permission to betray whomever — because, hey, nobody really likes him anyway. He's the clown who laughs because he must not cry, the shark that keeps swimming because if it stops for a second, it'll die. If War Dogs is about how fools run the world, then it's Diveroli's journey.
But the greatest testament to the quality of Hill's performance lies in a single character trait. As distinct as Diveroli is — the slicked-back hair, the formidable size, the drug-hoovering and leisure-chic attire — he's defined by that laugh. Every time he unleashed that wheezing cackle of a laugh, my theater followed suit, without fail; it's the type of gag so well-executed and appropriate that it works every time. And it's used to great success: At one point, when Diveroli and Packouz are in Albania making the movie's central arms deal, he laughs in a cavernous warehouse, and the odd sound reverberates loudly around the space, a sign that these two are punching far above their weight.
An ideal flourish, Diveroli's laugh is a masterful choice by Hill; it takes what could've been a loud but familiar egomaniac and helps turn him into a crooked work of art. It's also the right device for a movie like this. While War Dogs doesn't match the excess of The Wolf of Wall Street, and doesn't even try for that film's ethical gravity, you could think of it like a karaoke version of Scorsese, an enjoyable and not-unintelligent attempt in that vein. Phillips clearly understands that his story and characters are inherently compelling, and that his job is simply to tee them up properly. That comes in the form of some artful dolly shots, terrific international locations, and a strong cameo by Bradley Cooper, plus that unforgettable laugh from a fully accessed Jonah Hill, committing like never before to complete derangement.