November 01, 2009

Men Who Stare at Goats, The

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Men Who Stare at Goats, The

COMEDY:

United States/United Kingdom, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-11-06

Running Length:

1:33

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity, Nudity, Drugs)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick

Director:

Grant Heslov

Screenplay:

Peter Straughan, based on the book by Jon Ronson

Cinematography:

Robert Elswit

Music:

Rolfe Kent

U.S. Distributor:

Overture Films

Subtitles:

none


Welcome to George Clooney season. Those who find the actor, who has been described by some as a modern day Cary Grant, engaging will have reason to smile as Hollywood begins its annual push toward the Oscars. Clooney will bring his winning personality and high-wattage smile to no fewer than three productions with Academy Award aspirations. Fantastic Mr. Fox and Up in the Air are yet a short distance down the road, but The Men Who Stare at Goats has arrived. Not only does it have the strangest title of the three late 2009 Clooney vehicles, but the storyline is also probably the most bizarre.

That title - The Men Who Stare at Goats - is, in and of itself, an indication that this movie is not directed squarely at mainstream multiplex-goers. It's hard to imagine an army of 14-year old boys and their dates lining up to see this movie, which is designed with a more sophisticated audience in mind. The film is more than a little odd but it has fun with its offbeat premise and moves along breezily until it gets bogged down in the third act. (Watch out for the appearance of Kevin Spacey - that's when the momentum starts to flag as a more direct focus on narrative undermines some of the wit and comedy.)

The Men Who Stare at Goats opens with the following caption: "More of this is true than you would believe." But isn't truth always said to be stranger than fiction? We are introduced to Ann Arbor journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who is looking for the story of his life; he wants to impress his wife, who has unceremoniously dumped him. His quest leads him to Kuwait, where he hopes to become embedded with a group of troops entering Iraq. There he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), an ex-Special Ops military officer who claims to have been part of the "New Earth Army," a covert group of "psychic spies" who use their "Jedi mind powers" to influence others. Cassady agrees to take Wilton with him on a mission across the border. Along the way, he tells him about the New Earth Army's history and its commanding officer, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who ran a very different kind of unit.

The first half of The Men Who Stare at Goats is superior to the second half. For about 45 minutes, the film is content to play with the absurdity of the concept of having a covert group of "psychic spies." It also works brilliantly as a parody of the military and its rules and structure. Unfortunately, past the midpoint, the movie begins to pay more attention to plot and, when it does this, the humor erodes. The more The Men Who Stare at Goats focuses on developing and advancing the narrative, the less enjoyable it is because Cassady's "mission" turns out to be rather uninteresting.

The director of The Men Who Stare at Goats is Grant Heslov. This is his feature debut behind the camera, but not his first opportunity to join forces with Clooney. He co-wrote (with Clooney) and produced Good Night and Good Luck and filled similar producing duties for Leatherheads. The two men clearly know each other and work well together, and it shows in the easy way this movie unfolds. Heslov is not performing without a net. Who better than Clooney to lend a helping hand - a man who has learned from Soderbergh and the Coens and directed three films in his own right (two of which he collaborated with Heslov)?

The movie contains one of the best in-jokes of recent times. The psychic spies go by a number of different names, among them the "remote viewers" and the "Jedis." This allows for multiple references to Star Wars. Of course, it will be lost on no one in the audience that Ewan McGregor played none other than the young Obi-Wan in the prequel trilogy. So this creates a little amusement every time McGregor and Clooney discuss the Jedis and Jedi powers. McGregor provides us with this quote: "What's a Jedi Warrior?" He then ends up pursuing the path of the Jedi in the end. It would be interesting to know whether Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan were aware of McGregor's pending involvement when those lines were written. If they were, it was an amusing way to work in one of the actor's most (in)famous roles. If they weren't, it was a case of an eyebrow-raising coincidence.

Fans of The Big Lebowski, which has achieved a major cult status since its theatrical release, will note similarities between Bill Django and the "The Dude" of the earlier film. Both are played by Jeff Bridges, who has apparently drawn from the same wellspring of inspiration for these laid-back, New Age-y parts.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is enjoyable to watch "in the moment," but it doesn't leave a powerful or lasting impact, at least insofar as the comedic elements are concerned. (Re-watching it a second time after initially seeing it a month earlier at the Toronto Film Festival, I was surprised how fresh the humor was - mainly because I didn't remember most of the jokes.) As entertaining as the production is, however, the fact that it contains a kernel of truth reminds us of one damning truth: This is the kind of thing that American tax dollars are being spent on. The Men Who Stare at Goats is a comedy, and I laughed quite a few times while watching it, but that sobering reality almost makes me want to cry.

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