The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) / Comedy-War
MPAA Rated: R for language, some drug content and brief nudity
Running time: 94 min.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey. Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Stephen Root
Director: Grant Heslov
Screenplay: Peter Straughan (based on the book by Jon Ronson)
Jon Ronson's nonfiction book provides the basis for this very loosely derived adaptation, which runs along relatively smoothly in terms of amusement for the first half, only to become unfocused and devoid of comedic momentum as it closes in on the final stretch. It's a high energy film, nearly fast-paced enough to think there is much going on, only to realize that so much has been expended but in too many directions to get much of anywhere at all. And nevertheless, it still holds the attention when it needs to, such that, if you don't mind the relative pointlessness of it all, it delivers just enough goods required for most moviegoers not expecting a great film.
Ewan McGregor (Angels & Demons, Stormbreaker) stars as reporter Bob Wilton, whose latest beat is to try to cover the combat in the early days of the Iraq War by immersing himself with the troops. He meets up with Lyn Cassady (Clooney, Up in the Air), a covert ops soldier with a wild story regarding his involvement in a secret military psychic training operation, dubbed the New World Army, that explored the possibility, with the help of leader and mentor Bill Django (Bridges, How to Lose Friends), that men could use their extrasensory powers to wage wars through nonviolent means. Lyn, who is on a mission across the border into Iraq, takes Bob along, while the latter begins to wonder whether his cohort is off his rocker, or if there's much more truth to his story than anything he's ever known.
Grant Heslov (Par 6, "Unscripted") does a fine job keeping the energy up, even when the story takes some bizarre turns. As the build-up occurs, it's fun to watch some of the oddball antics of some eccentric men, including inspired comedic performances by Clooney and Bridges in enacting their strange techniques. However, most movies have a conflict, and the one presented in this film is where the story ultimately errs, setting up a jealous rival in the Psyops division, Larry Hooper (Spacey, 21), who attempts to sabotage Django's plans to aggrandize himself in importance.
The Men Who Stare at Goats, when it clicks, scores some funny moments of satire and irony, particularly when comparing its psychic soldiers to Jedi. Those who know the Star Wars prequels will likely smile as they see Obi-Wan Kenobi's portrayer surprised by all of the Jedi talk. Clooney is the one who steals most of this show with a mannered but, at times, manic performance that drums up most of the film's more memorably humorous moments, just through his expressions alone.
Other than this, the film succeeds in most respects, and garners enough entertainment value, laughs, and moments of interest to land a reserved recommendation. All in all, it's a nice showcase for its stars as well as the burgeoning talent of its director, but it's just not quite cooked enough in its story to be must-see material for anyone not an avid fan of the stars.
©2010 Vince Leo