Monday, November 9, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

The Men Who Stare at Goats has a great title and, with George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey, a great cast. Unfortunately, it’s a comedy that’s stuck awkwardly between light and dark, soft and edgy. It spins its wheels tonally while also forgetting about narrative drive or thematic development. As a result, it’s merely 90-minutes of watching big stars goof around in a giant sandbox playing true characters, mostly (Clooney, Bridges and Spacey) psychic soldiers trained in a secret Armed Forces project known as New Earth Army. McGregor is just a tag-along journalist (inexplicably shifted from London to Ann Arbor in a pointless case of adjusting the truth) learning about the history of the group, who call themselves Jedi Warriors (cute, considering they’re talking to Obi-Wan Kenobi).

The four men provide the film some modest pleasures. Clooney is good-natured and humorous, as he usually is, here deadpanning dubiously effective combat technique and flatly describing improbable abilities including a “death tap” that killed a man (Instantly? Nope. Eighteen years later. One never knows when the curse of the death tap will strike). Bridges is basically an enlisted Lebowski who indulges in New Age hippie-culture and invents the majority of techniques on display. Spacey has a great few scenes, rolling back his eyes and talking in a funny voice for one scene in which he tries to fake paranormal powers. In another scene he will calmly pass on good wishes to a newlywed couple with the funniest two lines in the movie (Spoiler: “Congratulations. Sorry it doesn’t work out”).

Directed by first-timer, but longtime actor, producer, writer, and friend of Clooney, Grant Heslov, the movie ends up a wishy-washy mess, not as good as it should be, but not as bad as it could have been. The movie’s good-natured enough, but ultimately Heslov can’t muster up enough heft to really start the movie so that by the time it’s wrapping up I found myself thinking “is that all?” It’s a goofy, insubstantial little thing (save for a case of most unfortunate timing with a scene showing an acid-tripping soldier shooting up his base) that just never works. The last scene has McGregor’s reporter typing away, promising to tell the world what happened, then lamenting that his story received little coverage in the media. We’re supposed to sympathize with him, but I found myself agreeing with the media. This story’s a non-starter.

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