It is rare when I get to see two movies back to back with the same actor. Even more rare is when said actor is George Clooney. Unfortunately for you, I only get to review one (the review of Up in the Air will follow its release in December). In The Men Who Stare at Goats, we see a very entertaining cast, hampered by what is ultimately a dull story.
The beginning of the film lets us know that much more of the story is true than what one would believe. If you’ve ever seen the brilliant BBC documentary Crazy Rulers of the World: The Men Who Stare at Goats, you will know that there is a whole lot of truth to that statement. We follow down on his luck reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), whose wife has just left him, and to prove what kind of man he is, he ventures to Iraq to cover the newly forming war. While waiting to get press access inside the border Wilton runs into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who claims to have been part of a top secret project within the U.S. Army, New Earth Army. They were trained to be “Jedi” or “warrior monks”, trained with everything that new age philosophies could bring them. Each ability he recounts seems more and more impractical and impossible.
Cassady and Wilton team up, and during their outing we are treated to flashback scenes of the New Earth army and its conception. It is apparent that Cassady is more than just a bit crazy, and that Wilton has stumbled upon the story of a lifetime. A story that will take him through a huge cast of characters all as crazy as the next.
The problem in this film is not the cast. George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, and Jeff Bridges all play their parts well, and are responsible for almost all the laughs in the film. Ewan McGregor is merely passable as the journalist Bob Wilton, but even he is not the downfall to the film. The actors are continually dragged down by the pace of the story. The premise of the film is so funny that it is hard to believe it could be so boring. Although, maybe this is where the main problem in the film lies. It feels like one joke repeated over and over, and by the end of the film I wanted to throw my hands up and say, “Yes, I get it these people are crazy.”
When you rely so heavily on one gimmick it grows endlessly tiresome, and it will force the viewer to meander through the plot only to be left with no satisfaction. The film is tedious in its farce, and offers no insight to any problems it poses. Are we supposed to be for against the pacifist new age hippies who self proclaim themselves to be Jedi? Are we supposed to be against the ludicrous ideas that the U.S. Army has cooked up to be part of its war machine? The film seems to never go beyond any point other than to tell you that crazy people can be entertaining for a moment. The only other thing I can grasp from it is that there seems to be a fine line between stupid and crazy, and in some instances people might be both.
It is a shame that they didn’t find more to do with this story. The cast was top notch, and much of the humor was done so well. However, in the end the film could not be saved by its lack of thought in plot and tedious pacing.
Another Take By Zac:
Grant Heslov’s feature debut is an inspired, weird, odd, and fun tale that has some wonderful origins that far surpass an aimless plot that occupies the other half of the film.
The plot surrounds a journalist, Bob Wilton, who is looking to maybe win his ex back by going to Iraq during the early stages of the second Iraq War to prove himself man enough to be her husband. Stranded in Kuwait without clearance to Iraq he runs into a supposed business man, Lyn Cassaday, whose name rings a bell from an old story Wilton did with a supposed para-soldier from an old army experiment back in the late seventies and eighties. The two head off to Iraq after Cassady volunteers his true nature to Wilton, quite easily, and they begin their adventure on a secret mission into the heart of Iraq. The film from here jumps between flashbacks of the origins and exploits of the paranormal soldier First Earth Battalion for the U.S. Army and Lyn and Bob’s trials and tribulation’s in Iraq
The films flashbacks are executed extremely well and harbor most of this comedies best laughs. This portion of the film is in fact the preferred section and saves the film from being a potentially wandering mess. The more present day affairs of the film lack little direction and meaning as we get most of the good stuff behind these para-soldiers in the flashbacks which Jeff Bridges shines in as the hippie commander Bill Django. After a study of soldiers in Vietnam, Django began to search for an alternative training for soldiers and was given government money to engage in a wealth of hippie activities only to return some years later with his place for the First Earth Battalion. Sporting a dude-esque demeanor, though a bit more coherent, Bridges gleefully delights as he encourages dancing, telepathy, and good spirits among his men. Stephen Lang is the most fun of his converts as the hard nosed and firm believing General who sponsors the First Earth Battalion and some how remains deadly serious in the midst of all the silliness he watches and participates in.
The closest thing to a villain in the film shows up in the wonderfully harmlessly sinister Larry Hooper played by Kevin Spacey. Spacey is having a blast trying to turn the group on their head and competing with Clooney’s Lyn as top soldier. Clooney is also hilarious and in good form getting to be wonderfully silly and over the top as the self titled “Jedi Master” and continues to show his range in all types of films. Ewan McGregor also plays a fine straight man as Bob Wilton who is quite befuddled over this whole mess and trying to figure out if Lyn is really all he says he is.
Now, most will come out really enjoying the flashbacks here and they are pulled off very well. The thing that will hang up some on this film is the plodding narrative that serves these flashbacks, or really lack of a real narrative. Lyn and Bob meander through Iraq running into a couple of interesting challenges but none that really shine or are as clever as the flashbacks. Though a couple laughs are pumped out of these bits and the ending is odd and appropriate to the film, one can only suspect what this could have been if they had a more compelling plot for the modern element of the film.
In the end, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a mostly successful affair that makes up for most of its dull points and short comings. Heslov proves to be an able director in his feature debut, but has some work to do to catch up to his production partners talents in Clooney. With all that said, Bridges, Clooney, and Spacey are all having quite the time here and are worth the price of admission alone. Some might find the modern elements of the film a tad bit boring or slow, but the film moves back and forth fairly evenly through the flashbacks and those never disappoint. If you are a fan of the actors involved, don’t miss this, and if you are only mildly intrigued it wait for video but definitely check it out.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is a B-