Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Men Who Stare At Goats: Fun, Funny, Well-Acted And Ultimately Pointless.

The Good: Very funny, Good acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: Almost no plot.
The Basics: Wonderfully entertaining, The Men Who Stare At Goats has an inconsequential feeling to it in the end because the interesting characters go nowhere.

About sixty-seven minutes into watching The Men Who Stare At Goats, my wife turned to me and noted, "I'm bored with this; I don't see where it is going." This surprised me because my wife was laughing pretty thoroughly throughout it, but when she made that declaration, I found myself agreeing with her. Given that there was only about twenty minutes left in the movie, we decided to soldier through it. I had been watching Let The Right One In (click here for that review) the same day and it left me with a strange bit of comparisons as I sat down to write my reviews. Let The Right One In had a more original idea, but I actually found myself far more entertained by The Men Who Stare At Goats. The reason for this is simple: while both movies are a bit light on plot, The Men Who Stare At Goats excels in the acting and dialogue departments and while it doesn't quite go anywhere, it is fun to watch.

The Men Who Stare At Goats is a clever idea which is fun, but the execution of it is less enduring outside the entertainment aspect of it. The movie is based upon the book by the same name. It is worth noting that I've not read the Jon Ronson book and that outside The Hurt Locker (click here for that review), I've not seen any movies that even attempt to put the current Iraq War into a film. The Peter Straughan-written, Grant Heslov-directed film is amusing, but one viewing was enough. As a result, it is easy to recommend watching The Men Who Stare At Goats without particularly wanting to see it again.

Bob Wilton is a jaded newspaper reporter whose wife has just left him. As he is packing up his Michigan office, when he gets a tip about a group of psychic soldiers developed by the U.S. Army. Wilton goes to Kuwait to try to become a war correspondent in Iraq, but his credentials are held up. So, he hitches a ride with an independent contractor, Lyn Cassady, whom he recognizes as a psychic soldier from his interview. Wilton believes he is onto a huge story and as Cassady drives him through the desert and they find themselves captured by Iraqi thugs, he learns the history of the New Earth Army.

Cassady tells Wilton about Bill Django, who returned from Vietnam to explore alternative combat techniques. He becomes something of a hippie and forms the New Earth Army, which seeks to psyche out opponents and use mind control techniques and psychic spying to defeat America's enemies. Cassady describes his rivalry with Larry Hooper and Hooper's jealousy over Bill's belief that Cassady is the real deal of psychic supersoldiers. But as Cassady and Wilton are roughed around Iraq, Wilton comes to doubt Cassady's mission even as he comes to believe his abilities.

The Men Who Stare At Goats is very funny. The dialogue is witty and it is well-delivered by Ewan McGregor and George Clooney. The concept is a funny one, that of the United States using soldiers utilizing paranormal methodologies is amusing. The Men Who Stare At Goats is well-executed, even if it is seriously weak on plot. The movie meanders toward a sense of resolution and it progresses with a pretty decent pace, but the highlight of the film is in the dialogue and the acting.

The movie hinges frequently on an inside joke that genre fans are more likely to appreciate than those who are not. At several points, Ewan McGregor who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel films has to screw his face up as Wilton and ask "Jedi?" He's forced to play ignorant of what the Jedi are and he is utterly convincing in the role. Jokes like questioning what Jedi are and what psychic powers are and how they work allow McGregor to take subtle pokes at his past roles and trade the role of mentor for one of apprentice. The speed of the dialogue and the wittiness of it works in the film's favor. The Men Who Stare At Goats mimics the cleverness and speed of a Coen brothers film remarkably well.

What also succeeds for the film is the acting. The Men Who Stare At Goats is very much a male-dominated film. Ewan McGregor and George Clooney (who seems to be channeling Tom Sellick) are both fast-talking and play characters unlike any they have ever played. Clooney is appropriately zany as Cassady and McGregor is delightfully straight-laced as Wilton. Jeff Bridges essentially reprises his role of the Dude from The Big Lebowski, but it is fun to watch him work as Bill. The real pleasure to watch in the cast is Kevin Spacey. Spacey plays Larry Hooper and he is darkly humorous. His physical acting ability, especially in the moment when he attacks Cassady, is funny and he performs well in the few scenes he has.

On DVD, The Men Who Stare At Goats comes with only a few extended scenes and trailers for the movie. The bonus features are hardly extraordinary for the comedy, but they are pretty typical.

Ultimately, though, The Men Who Stare At Goats is a hard movie to review and say more about. It is funny, but the jokes tend to be nonsequitors that hinge on the contradiction between the military sense of sobriety and order and Bill's chaotic, free-spirited approach to combat. The dialogue is clever enough to hold the viewer's attention, but not clever enough to want to watch it more than once.

For other films featuring Ewan McGregor, please check out my reviews on:
Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Star Wars - Episode II: Attack Of The Clones
Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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