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  • Feature: War, Inc. star Joan Cusack

    Fri, 23 May 2008 09:15:52

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    Joan Cusack is fiercely protective of her new film, War, Inc., for understandable reasons. Brother John, who is almost as well-known for his impassioned political views as iconically hoisting up a boombox in Say Anything, is one of three co-writers of the biting political satire, which lampoons prominent public figures and American foreign policy measures. In a time when criticisms of government are reductively classified as unpatriotic rants, War, Inc. is an incendiary piece of cinema that takes audacious shots at corporate greed, invasion in the name of spreading democracy, and a cultural obsession with celebrity that diverts attention away from prescient social issues.

    As a result, the road to getting greenlit was wrought with obstacles. “It was almost impossible to get made,” she says, “John had, I think, a third of the budget he had for Gross Pointe Blank, and then we had to go all the way to Bulgaria to film it, so it was a labor of love.” A defensive, yet joking, intonation creeps its way into Cusack’s voice when she speaks about the project. “So don’t you say anything bad about my brother’s film!” she half-jests during our conversation.

    Cusack plays Marsha Dillon, a representative of Tamerlane, the American corporate conglomerate occupying fictional Turaqistan. While the country is besieged by war and Tamerlane contends with a Mid East oil minister (Lubomir Neikov) whose pipeline threatens to obstruct profiteering, Dillon assists in running the Brand USA Trade Show. The ostentatious spectacle features dancers showing off prosthetic limbs for land mine victims and is set to culminate in the wedding of Central Asia’s biggest pop star, Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff). As Dillon, Cusack steals the show, playing the peppy, hardened Tamerlane rep with a consistent level of exaggerated energy. Think Olympian facial contortions and bursts of unbridled anger emoted with eyes ablaze and a smile pulled comically, frighteningly tight. But her best banter is with John, for whom she said she’d essentially “jump through a hoop with a shotgun” for. He plays conflicted hit man Hauser, the individual hired to off oil minister Omar Sharif to protect Tamerlane’s assets in Turaqistan, and whose cover is playing trade show organizer. Their performance dynamic is natural, a seeming extension of their personal relationship, though Marsha and Hauser are often at odds in the picture.

    “I think that [with your sibling] there’s a certain comfort level where you can just totally relax, which I think is kind of the key to any great performance. At least, enjoying the process of trying to perform or trying to make something happen [on screen] is to relax, so I just trust him.”

    Trust is of tantamount importance to Cusack, especially when dealing with material as unflinchingly scathing as this film, which has drawn comparisons to landmark black comedies such as Dr. Strangelove… and Putney Swope, though War, Inc.’s brand of humor is energetically jocular in a much different way. With a level of comfort steadfastly in place on set, there was never a question of the gags going too far, but rather playing off of each others’ comedic energies. “It’s kind of fun to not have a net, to just kind of go for it. So if it really is bad, it’s his fault. I trusted him,” she playfully quips.

    The biggest question then, becomes not whether or not the audience will laugh—there is plenty of funny heavy-handed mockery, from Yonica Babyyeah’s sultry performance of “I Wanna Blow…You Up” to Dan Aykroyd’s Vice President doling out orders from atop a toilet seat—but whether they’ll be willing to receive the material and its pointed criticisms, too. Cusack acknowledges how difficult it is to tread such a path during this historical moment, saying, “Obviously, soldiers being killed every day. It’s hard to talk about it and think about it. No one wants to be anti-patriotic.”

    But acerbic and disturbingly accurate as it is at times, the movie is also deliberately cartoonish, intended to entertain as much as it is to draw attention to a war which shows little promise of ceasing, even five years after it first started. This balance of elements is something that Cusack celebrates, believing that “everybody needs a break, and it’s fun to go see a funny movie and laugh and talk about things.” For Cusack, it’s as much for the Friday night date crowd as it is for regular viewers of Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

    “It’s a great movie to go to and then go to dinner and talk about because there’s a lot in it. It has a punk rock, cartoon[-esque] spirit and it will be fun to look at it more than once or see it and then [discuss it],” she reasons. Whether viewers will leave more titillated by the Gross Pointe Blank inspired fight sequences, the oversexed pop star subplot, or the social commentary which drives the entire project, talk people certainly will. Perhaps they’ll leave singing coalition-friendly lines lifted straight from Yonica (“You say you want to invade me, baby/You say you want to enslave me, baby”) or engaging in a heated discussion about the state of American politics and impending domestic regime change, but during the course of War, Inc.’s “enslaving” running time, the laughs Cusack promises are decidedly present.

    —Heidi Atwal

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