I really wanted love The Men Who Stare at Goats for a few reasons. First off, the title of the movie is The Men Who Stare at Goats–and that’s just cool. Second, it had a really solid trailer.
Third, it’s got a great cast led by George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey. And fourth, it’s the directorial debut of Grant Heslov, who I’ve been a big fan of ever since he got his head ripped off and thrown at his friends in Congo.
Heslov is also known for being nominated for Oscars for producing Clooney’s superb directorial feature Good Night, and Good Luck, and for co-writing it with him. Now, he’s in the director’s chair himself–with Clooney in front of the camera, as well as co-producing–working from a script written by Peter Straughan, based on a book by Jon Ronson. Is it successful? Yes and no.
What I most admired about The Men Who Stare at Goats is that it’s essentially a hippy war movie. It’s about a bunch of guys who decide to try and fight wars with their minds, rather than with weapons.
They call themselves Jedi Warriors, and they are a secretly-sanctioned group of the Army headed up by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). Django is a Vietnam vet who went decidely hippy after learning about the majority of soldiers’ lack of interest in actually killing or causing violence towards their enemy. Nowadays, he seasons his troops with drugs and dancing rather than the boot camp norms.
His most promising recruit is Lyn Cassady (Clooney), whose psychic abilities appear to be exemplary. Another recruit, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) is a bit resentful of Lyn, as well as of Bill, whose hippy methods he disapproves of. He is also a very gifted psychic, and in one scene secretly bends an officer’s fork with his mind while he isn’t looking.
If this movie sounds insane to you, it’s because it is–almost. It’s a black comedy and all of the above is most certainly played for laughs, but it never quite reaches a full embracement of its craziness, which–maybe from a matter of personal taste–I would have preferred.
Instead, the film centers around Bob Wilton, an investigative journalist played by Ewan McGregor, who bumps into Cassady years later and gets taken on a bit of a crazy journey, as he tries to discover more about the goings-on of this operation. The film is told from his perspective and all of the aforementioned events are discovered in flashback.
This means of telling the story, I feel was a mistake. Wilton is easily the least interesting character in the movie. McGregor plays it very well, and he can be very fun to watch, but the character feels a bit stock. Not to mention the fact that his voice-over narration gets a bit tiresome.
The film also suffers from its time-hopping narrative structure–it’s kind of got a bit of a case of ADD. Every once in a while, it will interrupt key scenes to send us to a flashback. This structure seems self-aware and, as such, is played for laughs, but I found it to be a bit frustrating.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is a movie that I feel like would have been much more successful if told chronologically. It would have allowed for the characters played by Bridges and Spacey to feel more like actual characters, instead of just myths, and it would have put Clooney’s character dead-center, giving the film the delusional whackiness that it really needed.
By telling the story from the perspective of a guy who wasn’t sure if he believed any of this or not, it left me a little confused as to whether or not I was supposed to–or what exactly I was supposed to be getting out of anything. I’ve been hearing many critics of this film coming down on it for being “smug,” but I feel the problem is just the opposite. It’s a bit timid, if you ask me.
But, I feel like I’m coming down on the movie a lot more than I want to. I really did enjoy the flick, despite my grievances. It’s a very funny movie, and there isn’t a single bad scene in the whole damn thing. Heslov has a great sense of comedic timing–as does Clooney, who is, in my humble opinion, one of the most underrated comedic actors around.
It’s very much a “hippy war movie,” as I mentioned earlier, and I think that’s such a refreshingly unsual genre. Jeff Bridges does nothing but help this aspect of the film flourish as much as it would need to in order to be what I would’ve liked for it to be. He is so odd and funny, and his performance takes a very unexpected turn in the final act that I really, really loved.
If I had the resources, I would take this film and recut it a bit to be a movie that fully embraced its most bizarre elements with shameless zeal. The resulting film would probably be one of my favorites of the year. As is, however, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a bit of a mixed bag: very enjoyable and definitely worth a watch, but not as good as it might have been. I’m certainly not letting it discourage myself from looking forward to the next directorial outing from Grant Heslov, though. I’ll be there opening day.