Thursday, November 12, 2009

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" Review

No, it's not a Coen brothers film, but it does a decent impression. The marks are clearly visible, foremost being the casting of veteran leads George Clooney and Jeff Bridges, and a plot that follows their reliable 'Joe-Local-gets-in-over-his-head' template. The film finds release just a year after the Coen's own "Burn After Reading," and the good news is that "The Men Who Stare at Goats," is just about on par with their espionage comedy, though I don't hold either in particularly high regard. Despite the misleading stylistic similarities, "Goats" was directed by a guy called Grant Heslov, who has a far more extensive resume as an actor than a director. He appeared in Clooney's "Leatherheads," last year and this appears to be the mutually beneficial returned favor.

Clooney brings an oomph to the film that Bridges or Kevin Spacey or even Ewan McGregor couldn't alone, and the script trades him one of the more legitimately charming performances of his career. As Lyn Cassidy, self-proclaimed 'Jedi warrior,' Clooney partners with a small town reporter (McGregor), for an undercover psychic mission on behalf of a secret branch of the U.S. Army. Their adventure is interspersed with a history of the 'First Earth Battalion,' a regiment with a freethinking spiritual approach to global conflict, based on information pulled from the supposedly real biography (also titled "The Men Who Stare at Goats") by author Jon Ronson. Experiments allegedly include, as advertised, the power to fell goats through channeled negative energy and the ability to pass through walls. The movie is prefaced with the phrase, "More of this is true than you would believe."

The bureaucratic satire of the snappy flashbacks makes for considerably better comedy than the majority of the present-day sequences, which often stumble in shoehorning the amusing suppositions, characters, and gags from the precursor scenes into a narrative. The issue comes to a head in a generally misguided third act, which fumbles for dramatic and comedic footing, delivering a largely disappointing finale on both counts. Still, the movie is as easygoing as the new-age hippies it depicts, and as such, stands a difficult film to dislike.

Where I do take issue with it, however, is in its depiction of Jedi ability. For the most part, the effectiveness of Cassidy's powers is a punch line, though I can imagine those who believe in the telepathic potential of the mind could read him at face value, pronouncing his psychic powers truncated by a hex cast by a rival solider. These sequences are left pleasingly ambiguous with two exceptions. The first is featured in the trailer, and the second I won't spoil.

Cassidy and Bob Wilton (McGregor as the surrogate Ronson), are driving across the Iraqi dessert when Wilton calls out Cassidy for a peculiar upward squinting. Cassidy explains the behavior as "cloud dispersing," and we cut to an effects insert from Wilton's point of view as the heavenly mass quickly dissipates. As near as I can tell, whether intentionally or not, the shot suggests that Cassidy isn't crazy and that he is legitimately paranormally gifted, which kills the quirky suspense moving forward. Others have suggested the shot represents a natural dispersion, which Cassidy merely perceives to have caused of his own volition, but the speed ramping applied to the image suggests otherwise to me. The same sequence without that single shot could easily have maintained an intriguing open-endedness.

The shot could hardly be said to spoil the film, which on the whole remains a fun, occasionally engaging diversion. My pre-existing interest in the strange is certainly a handicap not all audiences will share, and the proceedings favor subtle irony to joke-a-minute yuk-fests like this Summer's aggressively unfunny, "Hangover," which, no, I really won't get tired of bashing. "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is an acquired taste to be sure, and even under the right frame of mind has its share of problems, but nevertheless offers an entertaining ninety minutes with some great performances and hilarious individual scenes.

If the Coen brothers are inadvertently receiving credit for this film, they needn't be embarrassed.


No comments:

Post a Comment