a critiQal film review The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009)

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Plot: A reporter in Iraq (McGregor) uncovers startling revelations about a top-secret wing of the U.S. military when he encounters an enigmatic Special Forces operator (Clooney) on a mind-boggling mission. Based on a true story.

913 words (Est. Reading Time 4m 33s)

After appearing in front of the camera in films like True Lies (1994) and Enemy of the State (1998), actor Grant Heslov has now gone behind the scenes. After helping write the script for Good Night and Good Luck, he’s gone on to sit in the director’s chair for the upcoming comedy The Men Who Stare At Goats.

When we first heard about The Men Who Stare At Goats, we didn’t quite know what to think. Aside from the absurd title, this film seemed like just another silly throwaway comedy, this time poking fun at the military and some hair-brained schemes dreamed up during a hazy LSD trip.

The cast seemed to have it’s good mixed with it’s bad: Clooney, who we prefer in action flicks; Ewan McGregor, whose career started off so promising in Trainspotting (1996), has hit a few missteps as of late (The Island (2005), Angels & Demons (2009)); Jeff Bridges, whose career has seemed to suddenly skyrocket once again (Iron Man (2008), True Grit (2010)), and Kevin Spacey, who continuously seems to catch us off-guard by his better-than-expected performances (his turns in American Beauty, Superman Returns (2006) and The Usual Suspects (1995) among them).

Though seemingly an oddball mixture, these actors have one thing in common – they all tend to do solid quirky films in between their big hit-or-miss blockbuster films. Would The Men Who Stare At Goats be another one of those quiet and quirky hits with us, or is this film too dumb for even them?

Clooney, who doesn’t quite seem to grasp normal humor, always picks oddball comedies (Burn After Reading (2008), O Brother, Where Art Thou?) when taking a break from big-budget action flicks, and The Men Who Stare At Goats is no exception. Playing a character who seems loony while keeping a straight face seems a good role for the guy who rarely lets a smile reach his eyes. But, like the rest of the movie, he seems a bit uncomfortable in the role – almost as if he’s having mixed feelings about poking fun at such a strange story.

Ewan McGregor seems at first to be a perfect fit for the role of intrepid reporter, and during the course of the film, that reporter side does seem to stay true to the character. As the personification of the viewer’s skepticism, he allows his character to blend in to the scenery, letting the viewer stay focused on the events around him, rather than on his performance. It’s a nice trick, but also makes it hard to pin down his character with any more detail than a strong overlying sense of skepticism that’s reinforced by the viewer.

Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey both seem ill-used. Bridges, as a strung-out hippie, gives an incredibly cliched view of that by now easily recognizable character. Spacey, as Clooney’s main rival in the unit, comes across more as a spoiled, brown-nosing little kid who doesn’t get his way, rather than as a fellow officer in the military.

The film’s biggest fault, however, lies in it’s inability to take a stand on the story being told. There is a hesitation to the film to commit – whether to play the story up as a laugh, or whether to play it straight. Instead of deciding on either, the film instead focuses on the “Jedi” wordplay irony inherent in having Ewan McGregor (who played Obi-Wan Kenobi, a “Jedi”, in the newer Star Wars films) play an observer to Clooney’s maligned “Jedi” persona. A persona, by the way, which has itself already been skewed by his LSD-inspired military experiences. While this joke has a bit of wry wit about it at first, the constant harping on the “Jedi” name grows a bit tiresome by film’s end. The viewer leaves feeling some of that could have been replaced by something with a bit more substance – a bit more fleshing out of the characters and/or situations, possibly, that could only have helped the film, rather than the repeated irony brought out again and again.

Unable to decide how much of the story to believe, the film delivers the story as straight-forward as possible, leaving the laughs to the “Jedi” wordplay and the bizarre situations presented. Some of these do garner a chuckle or two (even these taper off quickly). The viewer is never quite sure how to take Clooney’s rather morose main character, and in fact, almost feels guilty at laughing at some of his antics. Is this a man whose tale, bound to bring a few shocked laughs or a shake of the head, will never be believed despite the (even partial) truth he speaks? Or is this a man whose serious mental defects have caused him to invent a ludicrous story, to the delights of those around him?

In other words, are we laughing with Clooney’s Lyn Cassidy, or at him? From what the characters look like near the end, this lunacy that is supposed to get the viewer’s laughing has really had an impact on their lives – mostly for the worse. So are we really laughing at something that’s actually funny, or is this whole story just another layer of cruel ridicule for the people involved?

Comedy just isn’t funny if it makes the viewer feel even a little bit of a sadness for the characters they are supposed to be laughing at. But, that’s exactly what The Men Who Stare At Goats brings. That will leave most viewers walking away feeling unsatisfied with both the situational comedy and the film itself.

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