The Men Who Stare At Goats
The Men Who Stare at Goats is a fun romp that satisfies until the point that it collapses under the weight of its own directionless plot. Set during the current Iraq war with telling flashbacks to the early eighties, we follow Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who is based on Jon Ronson, the author of the original non-fiction book, while he searches for a story so good it will convince his wife to come back to him. He meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) in a Kuwaiti bar near the Iraqi border who was a member of the now-defunct New Earth Army, a group of soldiers who were trained by hippie ‘Nam vet, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). Specifically, the program explored psychic warfare, and culminated in Lyn, the star pupil, staring at a goat until its heart stopped beating. Lyn and Bob journey across the Iraqi desert to complete Lyn’s nebulous “mission.”
The great fun of this movie is in the first hour, as director Grant Heslov (Good Night and Good Luck) feeds us details about the New Earth Army with each scene virtually an entire chapter out of Ronson’s book. Lyn, who apparently does have some psychic abilities but mostly is a naïve doofus, stumbles his way into this life of being, as it is called in the film, a “Jedi warrior.” When Lyn tells this to Bob, and later suggests that there’s a Jedi warrior in Bob himself, the inside joke is lost on few and is just one of many Star Wars references in in-jokes this film.
Along with the story itself, the acting here is tremendous. Clooney is on top of his comic game, delivering a straight-faced performance of a man who is caught between soldier and hippie, and who believes he has more psychic powers than he actually does. His urge to please his superiors and his need for something to validate his new-age whims soften a man who has the outer appearance of, well, George Clooney. You can’t help but like Clooney here, and, even better, he’s actually funny. Even in his most slapsticky moments, like when we see him dance, there is a crisp timing and delivery. He is subtle, convincing, and completely encompasses the character. Alongside him, McGregor too delivers funny lines, and although his American accent is slightly over-affected, his logical, no-nonsense take on the role is the perfect foil to Clooney’s insanity. McGregor and Clooney have many scenes together and play off each other like old friends.
Jeff Bridges’s performance is wonderful as well, and is slightly reminiscent of The Dude from The Big Lebowski. He’s a stoner who happens to be in the military but would much rather put flowers into guns than shoot bullets out of them. Like Clooney and the rest, Bridges plays his character with unflinching seriousness, and even when towards the end of the film he tears open his shirt in exuberance, we buy it. Kevin Spacey, revealed to be the film’s main antagonist is delightful. Every time he’s on screen he manages to steal nearly all of the attention, if not just because he is rarely there.
For such a great set of performances, you would think this would have to be a good film. The problem is that the story seems like it was made up as they went along, which should make it interesting but doesn’t. As McGregor and Clooney trek across the desert, they are captured by terrorists, then escape, then get captured again, then escape again, all really for little or no reason. We are never worried for their health; we know they will escape and as such the stakes are incredibly low. Especially indicative of this sense of “oh, let’s do this now!” is the film’s climax, which has a clumsy, tacked-on feeling. Suddenly it seems that this absurdist jaunt crosses the line from would-be-comedy to movie-with-a-message, but what is that message? Torture is wrong? Telekinesis is real? Save the goats?
Although this is a great premise for a film – that of the psychic-spy odyssey mixed with historical fact – it fizzles out. Heslov is so impressed with the novelty and philosophies that he has forgotten that stories need conflict, complications, and at least something compelling. Unless you can psychically influence the guy behind the box office counter to give you free tickets to the Men Who Stare at Goats, then we suggest waiting to stare at the rental.
Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Stephen Root
Director: Grant Heslov
Distributor: Overture Films
Runtime: 93 minutes