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Fantastic Fest Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats

By  · Published on September 27th, 2009

Sometimes when I go to movies with my mother (that’s right, I still do that) she’ll turn to me during the end credits and say, “Well, that was cute.” It’s praise, but it’s not enthusiastic. It means that the movie was fun, had several good moments, but was ultimately forgettable. What I like to call TBS movies because they’ll eventually end up on that particular station editing for time and content, playing three times in a row on a Saturday.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of those movies.

Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is having a mid-life crisis of the marital strife brand so he sets out to prove himself as a journalist by leaving his small desk at the local newspaper and heading for Iraq. There, he runs into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) a man claiming to have been trained as a psychic spy by the U.S. military.

This film is essentially two stories. The first is Wilton’s journey learning about the program and attempting not to get sold to Al Qaeda while becoming more of a man. It has its own life – featuring a few twists and turns on the desert roads, and Wilton definitely gets an adventure alongside Cassaday. Most of the time it’s amazing how they manage to stay alive with Cassady convinced he can use his unproven psychic powers to save them.

The second is the story of the First Earth Battalion being formed by the inspired Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who has decided that the hippie movement and the military should be joined together to create the ultimate weapons of peace. This is a goldmine of opportunity that is too often played for easy laughs like soldiers in uniform dancing and the obligatory drug-use sequences. Its saving grace is Bridges who takes a difficult (and clearly unstable character) and makes it his own.

In fact, this movie belongs to George Clooney and Jeff Bridges. Clooney is at his best when playing a crazy person, and his in that same top form here balancing his paranoia with the knowledge of things that most Americans should have never even known about. It could have been heavy, but Clooney plays it straight and gets a laugh everywhere one needs to be. Bridges pulls double duty, having to show a character during the prime of his life and career as well as near the end of his life and rope.

The performances are strong, the story is interesting in a goofy way, but it still manages to be middling and forgettable. I owe most of that to a lack of a compelling story. The initial concept of the military paying major dollars to “train” men how to kill with their minds is a fantastic one, but it never grows during the movie. The proverbial ante is never upped, so most of the situation is explored for surface-level jokes that are funny but don’t stick. The addition of Kevin Spacey’s prima donna psychic character into the mix shakes things up, and it serves to push the story forward, but everything still seems muted. Similarly, Wilton’s adventure with Cassady is fun and wacky in a sort of The Road to Iraq kind of way with Wilton filling in for Bob Hope and Clooney creating an insane, delusional version of Bing Crosby. They crash a car out in the desert, Clooney does some yoga, and the mission that his character on finally gets realized.

The over all effect is like watching the trains come in on time. It’s predictable, which is nice and will get you where you’re going with efficiency, but it would be far more entertaining if the damned thing crashed.

On the technical side, there was something unfinished-feeling about the whole thing. Scenes in the desert were washed out beyond belief so much so that it was unclear whether that footage had been color corrected at all. Plus, they should have spent a bit more to get CGI that was something close to believable. There’s obviously not a lot in it, but the stuff that is looks cheap and fake.

Beyond these missteps, the movie uses gags we’ve seen before and all laughed at in the way that videos of men getting kicked in the balls by children on America’s Funniest Videos will always be funny. There’s a massive LSD trip-out scene that offers what every drug trip-out scene has offered with the added bonus of terror suspect prisoners being involved.

Zany, funny, kind of endearing. The Men Who Stare at Goats is all of the things, but it’s light and there’s nothing hugely innovative going on. Imagine a less engaging version of Burn After Reading. With goats falling over.

So, yes, over all it’s an entertaining movie, and it wasn’t a bad way to spend a few hours, but I have the feeling that it also wouldn’t kill anyone to wait until it inevitably plays on TBS. I’m sure that’s how my mom will see it, and I’d bet serious money that she’d think it was cute.

The Upside: A fun, wacky travelogue of empty desert with strong performances from the entire cast.

The Downside: Uninspired comedy that lands, but doesn’t land hard.

On the Side: Did you know that some people still firmly believe in telekinesis despite zero physical evidence in support of it? It’s true! Apparently that list includes or included the U.S. military because this film is based on actual accounts of a similar program the army initiated.

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