Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

It’s a real shame that there’s no Academy Award for “Best Title,” because I don’t think The Men Who Stare at Goats would have much competition. This dark comedy is every bit as quirky as its title suggests. It’s quite humorous but ultimately more smile-inducing than laugh-inducing. Goats boasts a star-studded cast, but maintains the tone of a quiet, low-budget picture, destined to fly under the radar. Whether or not you should see it depends largely on the degree to which you’re amused by the premise.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is supposedly based on a true story, opening with a title that reads, “More of this is true than you would believe.” Having seen the film, I’ll buy that. Goats follows Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a journalist who heads to the Middle East after his wife suddenly leaves him. Though he initially plans to cover the War on Terror, Bob finds himself caught up in a much stranger story after meeting Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney). Cassidy claims to be a member of the U.S. Army’s First Earth Battalion, a secret group of soldiers that employ the use of psychic powers. They refer to themselves as Jedi Warriors. The Jedi pride themselves on never using their powers for attack, but some of them soon turn to the Dark Side, killing goats by simply staring at them. Along the way, Bob meets other Jedi, including the devious Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) and the movement’s hippie founder, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges).

Most of the humor comes from the sheer ridiculousness of it all. The Jedi training exercises include dancing, yoga, and cloud-bursting (using concentration to break up clouds). As Django, Bridges essentially plays The Dude from The Big Lebowski, telling a room full of Army commanders, “We must become the first superpower to develop superpowers.” Questions often arise as to what exactly the Super Soldiers are capable of, leading to mumbled pseudo explanations. A classic moment comes when Ewan McGregor asks, “What’s a Jedi Warrior?” Most people in the theater got the joke. He then asks Lyn Cassidy if he can really become invisible. “Well, yeah” Cassidy says, “that was the goal, but after a while we adapted it to just finding a way of not being seen.”

While humorous, the movie never meets its full potential. It’s too goofy to be serious, but often times too sad to be funny. As Bob and Lyn roam the desert getting lost, the movie loses its way a bit. There isn’t much in the way of plot, which would be OK, except that the slow pace of the film leaves glaring holes where the plot should go. There are some hilarious moments; I quoted lines for days after seeing the film, but the laughs don’t come often enough. The dead space between laughs remains generally amusing, but it should be hysterical. More humor would have fixed most of Goats’ problems.

The cast performs well, with George Clooney being especially hilarious. Ewan McGregor plays his part adequately, but he should have been given much more material to work with. Bob is far too underwritten to be the story’s main character, and his general lack of material adds to the feeling that The Men Who Stare at Goats can’t make up its mind. It’s a funny movie, but with such an interesting premise and a tremendous cast, it could have been one of the best films of the year.

I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. Two-thirds of the way through, I wondered how there could possibly be a satisfying conclusion to the story, but a strangely inspirational ending arrived at just the right time. It’s quirky, bizarre, and if I described it here, it probably wouldn’t make much sense. But it works. In the end, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a mixed bag; if you enjoy offbeat dark comedies, you’ll likely find enough to appreciate here, as I did. However, you’ll probably also wish there had been more to appreciate. George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, and Ewan McGregor as would-be Jedi Warriors ... that movie should be more than just generally amusing.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some drug content, and brief nudity.

The Men Who Stare at Goats contains a steady stream of strong language, and the slow pace and quirky humor would likely bore most kids. I wouldn’t make this one a full family affair.

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