Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats (***)

Directed by Grant Heslov


What do you think when you hear about a film with a title like The Men Who Stare At Goats? Certain things can be assumed: it will be well humored (probably silly), it will possess an ensemble cast (mostly men, of course), and it will probably be unlike most films that you've ever seen. Grant Heslov's latest film checks all of the items on this presumptive, make-believe checklist, but it's what the film does that isn't expected that makes it exceptional. An unforeseen human story and a spectacular cast helps the film rise above its goofy title, and creates one of the funniest movies of the year.

When journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) meets with an eccentric man named Gus Lancy (Stephen Root), he hears stories about reading the future and killing hamsters using your mind. Bob dismisses Gus and his tales of Jedi warriors, and is more worried about details in his home life: his wife is leaving him for his one-armed editor and he has lost that fire that once inspired his journalism. In an arbitrary attempt to impress his ex-wife, Bob goes into war-ravaged Iraq in hopes of finding a gripping story to write about. Instead, he finds Lyn Cassady (George Clooney).

Bob remembered Lyn's name when Gus Lacey was talking about the best Jedi warrior. Lyn has a reputation: he can crash computers with his mind, burst clouds in the sky, and once murdered a goat just by staring at it. Bob decides to follow Lyn on his latest Jedi mission, which includes driving through the dessert and getting kidnapped by Iraqi criminals. Facing fierce characters and constant danger, Bob finds the adventure he was looking for only to decide he'd rather not be there. Tagging along with Lyn, Bob finds the perfect story in the perfect disaster.

Bob and Lyn's journey is inter-spliced with flashbacks detailing the US Army's First Earth Battalion, where Lyn was trained in his Jedi ways. A military division created to promote passive, sometimes paranormal actions in the battlefield, it was lead by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who preferred to have the men in his division meditate, collect flowers, and dance during training. Lyn was the main prodigy within this experimental division, but the jealous Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) was always on his tail. After Larry botched an attempted experiment with LSD, Django was fired and the First Earth Battalion was disbanded.

The film begins with the caption: "More of this is true than you would believe". I'm still a bit skeptical, but I don't think that really matters. The film is directed by Grant Heslov, a filmmaker (and character actor) who has worked many times with Goats' main star George Clooney. Heslov was the co-writer and producer on Good Night, and Good Luck and the producer on Leatherheads. Now, he is directing his own feature, studio film and has called on his buddy to help him out. These stories of friends helping friends in Hollywood always makes me feel fuzzy inside, especially when they produce such quality films.

Does the film stumble over its final act? It most certainly does. But the film's final moments only cement a whimsical exuberance that exists throughout the entire film. It's hard to take a film like Goats, which possesses such unrestrained playfulness, and resolve it with something that doesn't feel contrived. Heslov instead chooses to take that playfulness and push it even further by the film's end (which includes a deliciously hilarious closing line by Spacey which I will not reveal here), and I'm not sure whether or not that's a bad thing. But I enjoyed it, so take that and make what you will of it.

The film's cast is probably its strength. Clooney--who is in the middle of a busy season which will later include Up In the Air and Fantastic Mr. Fox--is certainly funny as Lyn Cassady, but what's surprising is how strongly Lyn becomes the heart of the movie, and we never even realize it till the end. As neurotic journalist Bob Wilton, Ewan McGregor gives his best performance in several years (and it includes several layers of irony, since the actor behind Obi Wan seems increasingly skeptical of Jedi warriors). Both Bridges and Spacey are great in supporting roles, particularly Spacey who gives his first meaningful film performance since his Oscar-winning work in American Beauty (I should probably be honest and admit that I loved him in K-Pax, but that's not the most popular opinion).

The Men Who Stare At Goats inspired a lot more laughs than I thought it would. It felt a lot like Three Kings to me (for obvious reasons), but it's not nearly as profound. I'm not sure this movie was meant to be profound, though it does have some identity issues. Jeff Bridges reinventing The Dude seems to suggest straight comedy, but there were moments where there was actual social commentary (though never fully exploited). All these questions/doubts, are nitpicky in nature, and don't matter in the large scope of things. Because this is a good movie, and those are pretty hard to come by most of the time.

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