In theory, an anti-military satire about the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, vaguely (very vaguely) recalling the far superior Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove: Or I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," Robert Altman's "M.A.S.H." and Mike Nichols' "Catch 22," sounds like a terrific idea, now that there have been about a dozen, dead-serious dramas about those hot-button political issues. Moreover, with the exception of "The Hurt Locker" (the best film thus far about the Iraq War) and "The Messenger," most of those pictures were also artistically flawed and failed to find an audience.
However, with his feature directorial debut, the semi-quirky, semi-dark satire, Grant Heslov, partner of star-director George Clooney ("Good Night, and Good Luck"), proves that he is a more skillful writer and producer than a director. Roughly speaking, of the 90-minute-long comedy, half is funny and witty and half is tedious and flat, thus my decidedly mixed response.
World-premiering at the Venice Film Fest (out of competition) and later playing at the Toronto Film Fest, "Men Who Stare at Goats" will be released by Overture in early November, not to conflict with Clooney's other star vehicle this season, Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air" (also a socially relevant satire).
Narratively and technically, the satire is shapeless, lacking an involving plot (or any plot) and coherent structure, and marred by rough transitions from one time frame to another; many of the scenes are shown in flashbacks. Heslov also shows major problems with rhythm, pacing, and tempo, all crucial variables for a farce.
Moreover, of the four actors, all gifted Oscar-nominated (or winning) thespians, only two, Clooney and Jeff Bridges, hit their notes, while the other two, lead Ewan McGregor, who serves as the straight man to Clooney's buffoon and also narrates the saga, and Kevin Spacey, as the villain of the piece, have hard time nailing their parts, albeit for different reasons. In short, the main reason to see this severely flawed film is Clooney, who rises above the void.
Inspired by Jon Ronson’s non-fiction bestseller of the same name, "Men Who Stare at Goats" dislcoes some revelations about a top-secret wing of the U.S. military, and the Army in general. In this screen version, these revelations are meant to be funny and astonishing, but they are not.
Spanning (quite superficially) the era from Vietnam to the Iraq War, the yarn begins well, when a not-too-bright reporter named Bob Wilton (McGregor), hailing back from Michigan's Ann Arbor, who has just gone through a painful divorce from his wife, signs on to cover the Iraq War to prove his worthiness to his wife—and to himself.
Cut to Kuwait City, where Wilson encounters Lyn Cassidy (Clooney), an enigmatic Special Forces operator, a mysteriously vague, rather shadowy figure who claims to be part of an experimental U.S. military unit engaged in a (literally) mind-boggling mission.
According to Cassidy, the New Earth Army is changing the way wars are being fought, but not so much in terms of savvier intelligence or more sophisticated weaponry. Apparently, a legion of “Warrior Monks” with unparalleled psychic powers can read the enemy’s thoughts, pass through solid walls, and even kill a goat simply by staring at it, all of which is shown in the movie, though not very imaginatively.
The lingo used by Cassidy, who claims to be one of the Jedi Warriors, should prove to be vague and obtuse to most viewers, not just to Bob Wilton. And when Wilton asks, "What's a Jedi Warrior," you inevitably think of McGregor's role in the new "Star Wars" franchise. An inside joke, perhaps, but not a very good one.
Through flashbacks, we are introduced to the program’s founder, the wildly eccentric Bill Django (Jeff Bridges as a hippie with long hair and big belly), who has gone missing. Determined to find him, Cassidy embarks on a risky journey to some unpredictable consequences, some of which hilarious, others just silly.
Intrigued by his new acquaintance’s far-fetched stories, Wilton impulsively decides to accompany Cassidy on the search. When the pair tracks Django to a clandestine training camp run by renegade psychic Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), the reporter is trapped in the middle of a grudge match between the forces of Django’s New Earth Army and Hooper’s personal militia of super soldiers. It soon becomes clear that, in order to survive this wild adventure, Wilton will have to outwit the kind of enemy he never even thought had existed.
At the saga's very end, there's an unintentional joke. Back in the U.S., Wilton, now more committed to his métier, vows "to tell everybody what really happened there?" failing to realize that not much did happen–not in this picture.
Problem is, what should have been a hilarious spoof, exploring the government’s attempts to harness paranormal abilities to combat its enemies, becomes only sporadically engaging farce, marred by as many dead spots as good ones.
Considering that it was shot by the brilliant Robert Elswit, "Men Who Stare at Goats" lacks a distinctive or coherent visual style, which may also be a function of the moderate budget and the flawed conception. Heslov and Tatiana Riegel's editing, which leaves much to be desired, only accentuates the problems of a movie, which never gets going as far as dramatic momentum is concerned and seldom finds its proper rhythm.
"Men Who Stare at Goats" is a movie in search of identity and tone.
Directed by Grant Heslov.
Editor, Tatiana S. Riegel.
Visual effects supervisor, Thomas J. Smith.
Running time: 92 Minutes.