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Overall Rating

Awesome: 3.85%
Worth A Look73.08%
Average: 3.85%
Pretty Bad: 3.85%
Total Crap: 15.38%

3 reviews, 8 user ratings

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Men Who Stare at Goats, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Covert Paranormal Activity"
4 stars

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is one of those films that has so many nifty individual elements that it may come as a rude shock to some viewers in the end when they discover that they never pull together into a cohesive whole. The film was clearly designed to be a wild military satire in the vein of “M*A*S*H*” or “Three Kings” and in its best moments, it comes pretty close to hitting those heights but while those films had strong foundations from which their more anarchic impulses were able to spring from, this one is so rambling and undisciplined at points that it is almost impossible to make any sort of emotional investment in either the weirdo story or the weirdo characters. At the same time, however, it has so many entertaining bits scattered throughout that it would be unfair to dismiss it entirely because when it works, it really works.

The film starts of in 2002 as ambitious reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) goes off to interview a local wacko (Stephen Root) who claims to have psychic abilities for a human interest story. During their conversation, the man reveals that he was part of a top-secret government program known as the New Earth Army consisting of so-called “psychic spies” who were being trained to harness their alleged powers to do such things as kill animals just by staring at them intently--the most gifted of the bunch being a mysterious and long-vanished man named Lyn Cassady. A year later, Bob goes off to Kuwait City in order to find a way into Iraq so that he can cover the imminent American invasion and makes the acquaintance of Skip (George Clooney), a fellow American who claims to be a salesman from Arkansas but who, in an astonishing coincidence, turns out to be the very same Lyn Cassady and that he is actually heading into Iraq on a mission that is so super-secret that he isn’t even entirely sure what it might be. Eventually, Bob convinces Cassady to take him along for the ride into Iraq and during that eventful trip (which finds them getting lost in the desert and kidnapped by terrorists) the latter begins to open up about the long and strange history of the New Earth Army.

Via extensive flashbacks, we learn that the program was the brainchild of Bill Django (Jeff Bridge), a Vietnam vet who embraced the world of hippiedom and New Age spirituality and proposed an elaborate new approach to military training that would emphasize the development and refinement of latent psychic abilities in soldiers so that they could go about their duties of protecting the world without ever needing to use conventional weapons. Amazingly, this oddball division is allowed to thrive for years within the Army, albeit under top-secret circumstances, and the star of the group is Cassady, who can indeed stop a goat dead just by looking at it very intensely. Alas, all good thing must come to an end and the fate of the New Earth Army is sealed with the arrival of Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a hotshot recruit whose belief that he is the top military psychic is shattered when his powers fail to compare to those of Cassady’s and whose attempts to outdo his rival kick off a chain of events that eventually result in the termination of the program. As it turns out, it seems that Cassady’s mission in the desert has something to do with a revival of the New Earth Army, though there are a few nasty surprises in store when he discovers why it has been put back together and who is now in charge.

With its combination of audacious political satire in the vein of “Dr. Strangelove,” “Catch-22” and “Three Kings” and the kind of off-beat narrative approach reminiscent of the works of the Coen Brothers, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” definitely gets points for wild ambition, especially since it tries to pull it all off in just over 90 minutes of screen time. To the credit of director Grant Heslov, best known as one of George Clooney’s longtime producing partners whose only previous directing credit was the little-seen 2002 comedy “Par 6,” the film starts off like a rocket and it is certainly never boring. However, although the flashback structure was perhaps a necessity, it eventually grows a bit wearisome because whenever the sequences showing the history of the New Earth Army (which are the best parts by far) begin to develop a genuine comedic rhythm, the film cuts back to the present and the audience is sent back to square one. Perhaps a more experienced director could have figured out a way to make the transitions between the past and present a little smoother just does not quite have the filmmaking finesse to pull it off. As a result, we are left with a lot of good individual scenes that never quite manage to tie together in a satisfying way. Additionally, the ending is a bit of a disappointment as well in that it lacks the wit and inspiration of much of what preceded it--a film like this needs to go out with a great topper in the final reel but all it gives us is the kind of expected hippie-dippie nonsense without any sort of twist on the formulation to give it a little more zest. What we get here is the equivalent of taking the great Marx Brothers political satire “Duck Soup,” a take-no-prisoners comedy of the highest order, and ending it with a goopy musical number.

And yet, while “The Men Who Stare at Goats” may not completely succeed as a whole, it has so many worthwhile individual elements that it should not be completely written off either. The performances across the board are all pretty exceptional--Clooney is hysterical throughout as a man who is clearly not playing with a full deck of Tarot cards, Bridges is equally funny with his variation of his beloved Jeff Lebowski character as a singular military man, Spacey does some of his best work in a long time as the spiteful spoon bender and McGregor pulls off the thankless job of serving as the straight man to all the craziness around him. The cinematography from Robert Elswit is quietly brilliant in the way that it puts a straight face on potentially silly material that accentuates the bizarre nature of the humor without overwhelming it. There are also any number of individual scenes that still make me smile when I think about them even though it has been a few weeks since I have seen the film. I am thinking about the hilarious opening scene with in which a seemingly normal general (Stephen Lang) decides to go into the next office in a singularly unusual way. I am thinking of the sequence in which one of the psychic soldiers insists that an icon of the stage and screen holds the secret to the location of some missing missiles. I am also thinking of the brief bit in which Spacey’s character deliberately ruins a wedding through the use of his powers. To say any more would, of course, ruin the punch lines and besides, this is the kind of comedy where the jokes don’t translate that well--you have to actually see and hear them in order to (dis)believe them.

When I began writing this review, I must admit that I was a little unsure as to whether I was going to recommend “The Men Who Stare at Goats” or not because while it contains a lot of stuff that is definitely worth watching, the final product is a little too ragged and uneven for its own good and lacks any real conclusion. However, as I got further into it, I began to find the good and funny things taking center stage in my memories and, more significantly, it began to dawn on me that this is exactly the type of film for which a little shagginess is needed--why would you want to take something this odd and wrap it up in a tidy little package in the end in the first place? My guess is that this is one of those films that actually plays better the second time around when you can ignore the occasional hiccups and focus on the good stuff. Of course, if you are psychic, you probably realized that already. Then again, if you are truly psychic, you already knew that I was going to react this way and have already moved on to something else.

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originally posted: 11/06/09 16:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Venice International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Venice International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/20/12 Sheryl Granholm Would be much more entertaining without the underlying "comedic" score shoved into my ears. 3 stars
4/15/10 Monday Morning Dreadful. Kept waiting for great cast to make something happen - no luck. 2 stars
3/16/10 porfle Not great, but a lot of fun. 4 stars
3/07/10 tony worst movie I have ever seen 1 stars
12/24/09 sam awesome 5 stars
11/29/09 The GLC Blah! Boring! Drone! Lame! everybody in the theatre fell asleep 1 stars
11/11/09 Phineas Someone in the military PLEASE step up and WHACK GEORGE CLOONEY, the male Jane Fonda 1 stars
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  06-Nov-2009 (R)
  DVD: 23-Mar-2010


  DVD: 23-Mar-2010

Directed by
  Grant Heslov

Written by
  Peter Straughan

  George Clooney
  Ewan McGregor
  Kevin Spacey
  Jeff Bridges

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