Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats: Chewed cud

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) • View trailer for The Men Who Stare at Goats
1.5 stars (out of five). Rating:R, for profanity, drug use and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.12.09
Buy DVD: The Men Who Stare at Goats• Buy Blu-Ray: The Men Who Stare At Goats [Blu-ray]

This film desperately wants to be as hip, snarky and relevant as Catch-22.

Mostly, it's just desperate.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of those bewildering projects that makes one question the sanity of all involved. At no time could Peter Straughan's script  "inspired" by Jon Ronson's book (always a bad sign, that word "inspired")  have been considered worthwhile: not as originally written; not as tweaked during the filming process; and certainly not in post-production, when I'd like to believe director Grant Heslov realized he had unleashed a turkey truly worthy of the Thanksgiving season.
Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, second from right in front), a willing recruit
in the U.S. military's hippy-trippy New Earth Army, soon finds his unusual
mental skills challenged by renegade psychic Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey,
far left).

I can't imagine why this misbegotten flick ever even got off the ground, except for the possibility that Heslov and George Clooney wanted to work together again, having done so well with Good Night, and Good Luck.

Well, they shoulda held out for something better. All the luck in the world won't turn this 'Goat' into anything but ... well, a goat.

The absurdity of war has captivated writers and filmmakers for a long, long time, but battlefield satire is a ferociously difficult balancing act; few can achieve the glory of Dr. Strangelove or M.A.S.H.

Even the 1970 adaptation of Catch-22 failed to capture the manic spirit of Joseph Heller's must-read novel, and those folks started with excellent source material.

Straughan and Heslov, in great contrast, begin only with a one-note premise and no concept of where to take it. What eventually emerges, after a mercifully brief 93 minutes, is a clumsy, poorly plotted attempt to make fun of the U.S. military: something of a spectator sport, in certain circles.

But the effort is so insipid, that we can't help being irritated  on the U.S. military's behalf  by all involved with this dull, lifeless and laughless so-called "comedy."

Reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), having just been dumped by his philandering wife, decides to drown his sorrows by seeking A Really Big News Story in Iraq. It should be noted that Bob's wife has cheated on him with a one-armed man, who at one point wrestles our hero to the ground with his prosthetic limb. No reason for this, really, except to foreshadow the general weirdness to follow.

Once overseas, Bob encounters Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a twitchy, oddly intense individual posing as a corporate salesman. At the drop of a hat, though, Cassady explains that he's actually a special-ops agent under deep cover, working for an experimental U.S. military unit that has, for years, been tasked with changing the way wars are fought.

The self-described New Earth Army's goal: to train soldiers to wreak havoc with their minds.

Or, to put it another way, to develop the skill to stare fixedly at goats  or enemy soldiers -— and stop their hearts via nothing but intense concentration.

Wilton, to his credit, doesn't buy Cassady's crazy story at first blush, nor is the reporter impressed by his new companion's supposed ability to make atmospheric clouds dissipate, or inflict an "aura of nervousness" on potential attackers.

Indeed, most of Cassady's so-called demonstrations are self-delusional nonsense.

But not entirely. Cassady apparently can predict coin tosses hundreds of times in succession  we watch him do it  and he can identify a photo in a closed compartment, and we're led to believe that he once helped locate a kidnapped individual through "remote viewing."

The question, then  are Cassady's "skills" real or hallucinatory?  remains open.

As our two new buddies get into progressively more dire circumstances  in great part because of Cassady's reckless behavior  Wilton gradually learns (via flashbacks) of the New Earth Army's inception. The unit's founder, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), had a life-changing experience during his tour in Vietnam; he subsequently embarked on a New Age-y fact-finding "mission" and returned with the belief that he could totally transform the average American soldier.

And, because the military didn't wish to be left behind in a "paranormal gap" with the Russians, Django was granted resources, manpower and an expense account.

For a while, things moved along relatively smoothly, meaning that Django successfully kept his 'training' details away from the prying eyes of superiors who'd take one look, recognize that the emperor had no clothes, and shut down the operation. But alas and alack, things turned sour with the arrival of renegade psychic Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), whose jealousy of anybody who might have actual psi talent prompted him to sabotage the environment.

More or less. Sort of.

Django, a broken man, disappeared ... and Cassady has been assigned to find him, hence the current "mission" in Iraq.

OK then.

It is established fact that plenty of strange and horrible things have been done to military volunteers over the years, in the name of "building a better soldier": everything from LSD therapy to, yes, "teaching" men to walk through walls or kill hamsters with a glance. One hesitates to be too critical, with the benefit of our 21st century hindsight; you can't necessarily know that something is stupid, unless you try it.

Trouble is, Heslov never gets his film's tone right. Straughan's characters are self-delusional mental ward refugees, pure and simple; it's difficult to laugh at characters who behave so stupidly. One tends to feel pity  or contempt  rather than amusement.

Worse yet, everybody hams it up atrociously, mugging the camera and overplaying each scene in the manner of a stage actor trying to be noticed by patrons in the nosebleed back row of the second balcony. Satiric humor works best as a careful blend of contrasts: relentlessly serious and "straight" characters who doggedly maintain their calm sincerity in the face of ever-escalating chaos.

I gotta give Clooney credit; he hasn't looked this ridiculous since he donned the nippled black suit for 1997's Batman and Robin.

He, McGregor, Spacey and Bridges are so shrilly bug-eyed, so relentlessly over the top, that the whole film comes off sounding insufferably smug. We're repeatedly told that this stuff is Funny And Profound, ergo we'd better laugh, dammit.

Well ... no. It doesn't work that way.

Honestly, the only truly funny parts involve Clooney's ludicrous "long hair look," intended to convey his character's younger self, and what must have been intentional stunt casting: McGregor's presence in a "real world" storyline that repeatedly references "Jedi warriors," a phrase that the former Obi-Wan Kenobi hears and repeats on numerous occasions.

How he did so, without ever cracking a smile or protesting the line's in-joke absurdity, is utterly beyond me.

The most consistent reaction to The Men Who Stare at Goats, however, is irritation: at the wasted talent; the squandered opportunity for truly incisive satire; and the lost 93 minutes  and the dollars wasted on tickets  that you'll indignantly want back, once the curtain closes on this story's highly unlikely epilogue.

If authentic, the events meticulously researched and recounted in Ronson's book would make a fabulous documentary, and likely a very funny one. But this cast's giggly schoolboy approach to the material, and Heslov's willingness to let everybody run amok, results in a film as juvenile as last year's Tropic Thunder.

Trouble is, The Men Who Stare at Goats believes that it's Significant.

That's pretty funny, as well...

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