Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Movie Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats ** ½
Directed By:
Grant Heslov.
Written By: Peter Straughn based on the book by Mark Ronson.
Starring: George Clooney (Lyn Cassady), Ewan McGregor (Bob Wilton), Jeff Bridges (Bill Django), Kevin Spacey (Larry Hooper), Stephen Lang (Brigadier General Dean Hopgood), Robert Patrick (Todd Nixon), Waleed Zuaiter (Mahmud Daash), Stephen Root (Gus Lacey).

There is a great story at the heart of The Men Who Stare at Goats. The book by Mark Ronson tells the story of a top secret branch of the military that during the 1980s experimenting with physic spies. A specially selected group of people were taught how to be physic and see into the future, and do other strange things like stare at goats until they stop their hearts with their minds. Amazingly, this is a true story. And it should make for a great movie. But for some reason, the movie version of the book never really comes together.

Ewan McGregor is Bob Wilton a reporter for a small town newspaper whose wife leaves him for his editor. Wanting to prove his manhood, he heads over to Iraq to become a war correspondent. The problem is that he cannot get into the country and spends weeks on end in Kuwait waiting for clearance. This is where he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Bob has heard his name before. Recently he was sent to interview a many who claims to be physic who told Bob about his military training during the 1980s where he learned from Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) and how a man named Lyn Cassady was the best physic he ever saw. Bob dismissed the man as a nut, but when he comes face to face with Lyn, he decides to explore the story. It helps that Lyn can get Bob into Iraq. On the road trip, Lyn tells the story of what happened in the 1980s. In flashbacks, we see him and the rest of the men train under Django, who went on a spiritual journey on the military’s dime, and came back a changed man. He embraced a philosophy of creating “Jedi” warriors. Ones who could fight the enemy without killing. It is an interesting story - the flashback segments of the movie actually work - and the performances by Clooney, Bridges and Kevin Spacey, as Larry Hooper who is jealous of Django are excellent.

The problem is the segment that takes place in Iraq. Clooney, who is excellent in the flashback sequence, here is completely unhinged. It is impossible to believe that anyone - particularly someone who up until then had been presented as intelligent like Bob - would take Lyn seriously, and put themselves into his hands. Everything that happens in Iraq becomes increasingly silly and hard to believe, and the performances get more crazy as they go along. By the time we get to the big reveal at the end of the film - that brings together the past and present - we have completely stopped believing the movie.

I think this could be because director Grant Heslov and writer Peter Straughn go too far with the Iraq section. Everything we see in the flashbacks is based upon Ronson’s book, and is just crazy enough to be believed. There is an air of believability to it, because it is something so crazy that no one could really come up with it on their own. On the other hand, the stuff in Iraq is practically all fiction, and is just the imagination of the filmmakers running away with them. To a certain extent, I think they tried to recreate the craziness of the flashbacks, and at the same time make it a little more believable. They failed. Because the movie flashes back and forth in time, and until the end there is seemingly no real connection or reason to use this kind of storytelling, the movie is at times a disjointed mess.

It must be said that the performances in the movie are really quite good. McGregor has the unglamorous straight man role - the calm at the eye of the storm, and if the Iraq scenes have any credibility it is because he grounds the movie in his reality (until the ill advised final scene anyway). Clooney is good at playing this unhinged character, yet it is not the type of role that he normally excels at. Clooney is a movie star, and is excellent in movie star roles. As a character actor, he isn’t quite as believable. I enjoyed Jeff Bridges performance as Django, but it is essentially a repeat of his performance as The Big Lebowski with less complexity. Spacey is very good as Hooper, but his performance masks the fact that his role is underwritten.

There is a lot of great stuff in The Men Who Stares at Goats, but it doesn’t really add up to anything. The movie tries to tie together everything from Vietnam to Iraq, and comes up well short. The whole of the movie is much less than the sum of its parts.

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