Movie review: A 'Goat' that's hard to get
It possesses the best title of the season, but "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is good in name only. The rest is little more than regurgitated Joseph Heller filtered through the unimaginative mind of a Coen brothers wannabe.
It's funny, all right, but only sporadically, and only because of the ability of George Clooney and Jeff Bridges to enliven a political satire that's more drab than droll.
They play members of an elite squad of soldiers trained to fight with their minds instead of weapons. A sort of hippie Army, if you will, in which LSD and flower power carry more cachet than M16s and rocket launchers.
It's all very surreal; and - if you believe Jon Ronson's book of the same name - all true. Well, at least the most ridiculous parts are, like the Army general attempting to walk through walls and the troops trained to kill animals (and presumably humans) simply by gazing into a critter's doughy eyes.
The rest is pure hokum emanating from the narrow mind of British screenwriter Peter Straughan ("Sixty Six," "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People"), who concocts a cock-and-bull story that ham-handedly strings together the juiciest parts of Ronson's book.
The result is very much a "Road" picture out of the Hope-Crosby canon fortified with enough cynicism and leftist politics to appease the chi-chi Obama crowd.
The only irony in this allegedly ironic tale is that the most inspired moments come courtesy of flashbacks, a literary device almost as lazy as relying on a narrator, in this case a naïve Midwestern journalist played by Ewan McGregor, who is almost as awful here as he was in "Amelia."
His square-jawed Bob Wilton serves as our surrogate on this allegedly enlightening journey, which traipses (some might say meanders) over nearly four decades - from Vietnam in the 1960s to Fort Bragg in the 1980s and the Iraqi desert in 2003 - without any of the characters aging more than a couple years. (Apparently some of the "psy-ops," or Jedi Warriors, as they liked to be called, were slipped to an age-defying elixir.)
Reeling from a divorce and aching to make a name for himself, Wilton heads off to Kuwait in hopes of hooking up with an Army unit charging into Iraq. Instead, he crosses paths with Clooney's Lyn Cassady, a former member of the disbanded New Earth Army, which was conceived and built by Bridges' Vietnam vet turned hippie, Bill Django.
As Cassady regales the journalist with his tales about the good ole days of psychic warfare, the two hop into a Ford Taurus and set course on what Wilton is told is a secret mission to Iraq. Thus providing us with a framing device for all those flashbacks recounting how the New Earth Army began, thrived and ultimately died at the hands of Kevin Spacey's petty officer, Larry Hooper.
Along the way Cassady and Wilton acquire a social conscience (much like the self-centered characters in Clooney's superior "Three Kings"), as they confront sobering truths about warfare weaknesses.
The problem is that none of it is very interesting, especially the contrived male bonding taking place between Cassady and his young charge. Still, this is Clooney, a man with enough wit and charisma to conquer any inanity. And for the most part, he succeeds at holding your gaze, especially whenever the scene shifts back to when Cassady was a young, long-haired nerd recruited into the program to hone his extrasensory gifts.
No matter that Clooney looks silly in his Beatle-bobbed wig, he remains magnetic throughout. And his chemistry with Bridges as the pony-tailed, acid-dropping leader of the unit is explosive.
Where first-time director Grant Heslov (Clooney's writing partner on the Oscar-nominated "Good Night, and Good Luck) goes wrong is in his flagrant aping of the Coen Brothers' deadpan-style of humor, which is most gratingly evident in a running gag concerning Wilton's bafflement over the New Age Army's adherence to the Jedi code. The joke being, of course, that McGregor portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars I-III."
You go along with it for a good long hour, though, until finally realizing that Heslov and Straughan are taking you on a journey with no real destination.
Are we supposed to be appalled by the psy-op tactics, or are we meant to lament the death of such a novel approach to warfare? Or, more likely, are we to simply bask in the absurdity of it all, a la "Catch 22"?
Who knows? Heslov certainly doesn't, and it ends up costing him, as he delivers an idiotic finale that even the worst psychic can see coming. And, yes, it involves goats. But by the time they make their appearance, it's doubtful anyone is going to give a bleat.
THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS (R for language, some drug content and brief nudity.) Cast includes George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. Directed by Grant Heslov. 2.5 stars out of 4
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