In his seminal essay “Bad Movies” J. Hoberman writes that really “bad” movies are not without merit and that “it is possible for a movie to succeed because it failed.” However, sometimes movies come around that are not just bad but something much worse. They are entirely middling. Such is the case with Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Based on the 2004 novel of the same name, The Men Who Stare at Goats begins with the obligatory validation, telling the viewer, “More of this is true than you would believe.” The film is actually more boring that I would have liked to believe.
Ewan McGregor plays Bob Wilton, a reporter who one day does an interview with a man named Gus who tells Bob that he was part of a Special Forces team that was “trained to kill animals just by staring at them.” Thinking that Gus is some crazy man Bob leaves the interview thinking it was all just a waste of time. As is so common in hackneyed narratives, what was thought to be a waste of time soon becomes an important event.
Slowly however, Bob’s life begins falling to pieces as his wife leaves him for his boss, a disabled editor. This is supposed to be funny, and it is perhaps the cruelest laugh that the film goes for, because the rest of The Men Who Stare at Goats can only be described as “nice.” In an attempt to assert his masculinity and prove his life is worth something Bob decides to go to Iraq and capture the battle on the front lines. Instead of reporting on the effectiveness of the surge, or the social climate in Iraq, Bob meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Claiming to be a “Jedi warrior” and donning a Burt Reynolds-esque mustache Cassidy is more than a little crazy, he is completely looney. He also loves the eighties rock band Boston. I am not sure if that makes him crazier or not.
It is unfortunate for Clooney to be in this movie because he is having such a wonderful year with Fantastic Mr. Fox and Up in the Air, but his performance is unquestionably one of the better aspects of the film. He plays crazy with enough serenity that a certain authenticity is revealed, and his claim that he is one of many “jedi [who] fight with our minds [to create] a fountain of blood”, sounds less crazy as the film goes on.
With the revealing of other Jedi, comes a short list of triple-A actors. Jeff Bridges essentially reprises the role he had in The Big Lebowski playing Bill Django, the hippie leader of the Jedi who is trying to find out how love and peace can help fight a war. Kevin Spacey is the evil villain who wants to be the most powerful of all the hippies. Yet the best appearance is from Robert Patrick. Over the last two decades it seems that every film Patrick has appeared in he has been a government agent. The role has become so ubiquitous that it wouldn’t be unfair to think Patrick might just actually work for the government. Patrick’s role as the head of a corporate security firm is funny, if only because Patrick seems so self aware; he seems to be parodying himself.
While the supporting performances are at times funny, or at least functional, McGregor seems to merely exist on screen. Uninteresting, perfunctory and disinterested all characterize McGregor as he floats about on screen. McGregor’s Bill is supposed to stand in for the viewer, who rides along this bizarre semi-true story of Army Jedi. But instead of standing in for the audience, McGregor seems to stand in front of them, blocking what little magic that exists in Clooney’s and Spacey’s exchanges. For a movie which is all about spirituality and vivacity, McGregor seems completely cold and dead.
As The Men Who Stare at Goats trots along it slowly devolves into a formulaic buddy movie, stressing the need for compassion among one another. Photographed by Paul Thomas Anderson usual, Robert Elswit, there are some beautiful shots of the Kuwaiti desert. Unfortunately none of that beauty translates to the film’s story which is overly saccharine. The blind optimism almost becomes smothering by the film’s end. There are dark moments in the film, such as Cassady’s use of steroids and of course there is a commentary on what war does to people, but these are all overruled by Heslov’s desire to uplift the viewer. This makes the “niceness” of the entire movie almost seem sinister, leaving the audience confused as to what is going on.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is above all else frustrating because of what it could have been. There is a wealth of talent here and it’s a shame that the film is so uninteresting. Heslov and Clooney have collaborated together before and produced Good Night, and Good Luck which was both wonderful and poignant. The Men Who Stare at Goats is unfortunately neither.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Fisticuffs, war violence and one psychically sacrificed goat.
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Directed by Grant Heslov; written by Peter Straughan, based on the book by Jon Ronson; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Tatiana S. Riegel; production designer, Sharon Seymour; produced by George Clooney, Mr. Heslov and Paul Lister; released by Overture Films. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
WITH: George Clooney (Lyn Cassady), Ewan McGregor (Bob Wilton), Jeff Bridges (Bill Django), Kevin Spacey (Larry Hooper), Stephen Lang (General Hopgood), Nick Offerman (Scotty Mercer), Tim Griffin (Tim Kootz), Waleed F. Zuaiter (Mahmud Daash), Robert Patrick (Todd Nixon) and Rebecca Mader (Deborah Wilton).