Friday, November 27, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats / *** (R)

Lyn Cassady: George Clooney
Bob Wilton: Ewan McGregor
Bill Django: Jeff Bridges
Larry Hooper: Kevin Spacey
Brigadier General Dean Hopgood: Stephen Lang
Todd Nixon: Robert Patrick

Overture Films presents a film directed by Grant Heslov. Written by Peter Straughan. Based on the book by Jon Ronson. Running time: 94 min. Rated R (for language, some drug content, and brief nudity).

The key to good satire lies in the storyteller’s ability to believe in the subject of which they are also ridiculing. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” tells a story that might seem difficult to believe in, but on a title card at the beginning of the film it claims, “More of this story is true than you would believe.” I don’t know how much of this story is true. The fact of it doesn’t really matter. What does is that, for all its absurdity, I do believe our government is capable of the practices depicted in this movie.

A reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, “Angels & Demons”), stumbles upon the story of a secret U.S. Army unit known as the New Earth Army, which employs paranormal powers on their missions. This discovery comes at a turning point in Wilton’s life. When he stumbles upon the New Earth’s star soldier, Lyn Cassady, on assignment in Iraq, he goes against all his better sense and decides to pursue the story.

Cassady, played by George Clooney (“Burn After Reading”), appears to be quite off his rocker; but he spins a tale of New Earth’s non-lethal philosophy in such a way you want to believe him. New Earth’s ringleader, as played by Jeff Bridges (“The Big Lebowski”), has much to do with the group’s appeal. The ultimate aging hippie actor brings all the hippie love of his career to the role of Bill Django and has a good deal of fun satirizing his own image in this military setting. I don’t think it’s any mistake that McGregor, Obi-wan Kenobi himself, was cast as the reporter who discovers these soldiers who refer to themselves as “Jedi warriors.”

Wilton follows Cassady out into the desert of Iraq on a “mission” that was assigned to him in a “vision.” Cassady shows Wilton many of the methods of New Earth, which often seem like feats that ghost hunters would find no trouble debunking. As the two stumble around the hostile desert, Cassady also feeds Wilton the turbulent history of the New Earth Army, a story that came to an abrupt end when one of its bad apples developed a program where the soldiers were trained to use their psychic abilities to kill a goat just by staring at it.

There really isn’t much to the story of “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” It lacks much of the cleverness and depth of past collaborations between Clooney and his producing and writing partner, Grant Heslov (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), who takes the directing reigns this time around. However, the story has its smirking charm, which is sold by the film’s solid casting. Clooney continues his streak of selling crazy despite his striking looks. McGregor’s boyish innocence is used effectively. Kevin Spacey (“Recount”) is brought in as bad apple Larry Hooper for an instant recognition of his smarminess. And kudos must to be given to Stephen Lang (“Public Enemies”) for his scene-stealing performance as the impressionable Brigadier General Dead Hopgood.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” feels distinctly like Coen Brothers lite. It falls in to that oddball cinema of the absurd, which most Coen Brothers comedies find themselves. Clooney has certainly played his fair share of oddballs in Coen comedies. He brings their flair to this project, although this one feels much more mainstream friendly than most Coen fare. It lacks the bloodshed that even their more slapstick work tends to contain.

While I don’t think “The Men Who Stare at Goats” will be winning any awards, there is a good sense that everyone involved is just having a good time. That energy finds its way off the screen and into the audience. There are no big guffaws to be had here; it’s more of a thinking man’s comedy. There is a good deal of fun on screen, and that’s good enough for me. Just don’t ask the goats what they think of it.

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