George Clooney and Jeff Bridges give brilliant comedic performances in The Men Who Stare At Goats. Everything else about the movie is a little unremarkable. I was thinking I might give the picture a mild recommendation, but have since discovered that a great dislike for the film exists on the internet, and that my wife seemed to think it was sorta thin on quality too. Recognizing that my judgement isn't always crystal clear where comedies starring actors that I already like are concerned, I will adjust my thoughts ever so slightly in order to acknowledge that my vaguely positive feelings about the flick seem to be out of touch with the general public.
Ewan McGregor plays a reporter from Michigan (albeit with a vaguely Scottish accent) who leaves to cover the early phase of the current Iraq war after his wife leaves him for another guy. He promptly meets Clooney, a twitchy fucker if ever there was one, who eventually reveals that he once was (and may still be) part of a special division of the U.S. Armed Services called the "New Earth Army," a new-ageish unit created in the sixties with the intent of developing soldiers' psychic ability. In theory, these guys would use their ESP to spy on (or "remote view") enemies of the United States, they would have the ability to pass through walls, and a select few could, you guessed it, stare at goats and be able to stop their hearts, and / or provide the film with a title.
Clooney claims to be on a secret mission in Iraq, and McGregor tags along, thinking he's gotten his big story. He slowly learns about the group's history along the way courtesy of a series of well-themed flashbacks. A big problem I spotted almost immediately is that the flashback material is infinitely more interesting than most of what happens in the film's present. Additionally, the flashbacks are so lengthy and there are so many of them that more than once I sort of forgot that there was another story line going on.
Members of the New Earth Army call themselves Jedi warriors. On what feels like 30 or 40 occasions, Clooney accuses McGregor of not knowing anything about being a Jedi, and then the picture immediately cuts to the slack-jawed Star Wars actor looking nonplussed, a pause which I imagine the filmmakers built-in to allow for all the riotous laughter that would fill the theater each and every time the reference was made. Around the 15th or 16th time they did the joke, I became convinced that McGregor was only cast for the sake of making that one joke work. Sadly, I'd probably have trouble even remembering that he was in the movie otherwise, as I do with the underused Kevin Spacey, who plays one of Clooney's rivals.
Generally speaking, Clooney picks excellent movies to be a part of, provided, of course, that the word "Ocean's" doesn't appear in the title. He is indeed wonderful in the lead role here, but it is yet another movie where he is trading on his image as a heart-throb by playing a dorky guy with a poor sense of fashion. The thing is, though, that his film roles have been in an almost constant state of self-parody lately. Burn After Reading, Leatherheads, Intolerable Cruelty... When he actually plays with his type, as he did so well in Syriana and Michael Clayton, it's almost like the sighting of a rare white elk. Remember when it used to be a novel thing for Robert DeNiro to show up in a comedy? It was a rare treat that resulted in wonderful surprises like Midnight Run and Wag The Dog. His recent resumé, however, is littered with junk like Analyze This!, The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle, and of course, the Meet The Fuckers movies. Clooney hasn't been slumming like that, but it'd probably be wise for him to do a few more dramas before returning to this kind of material.
Goats was directed by Grant Heslov, who had a lengthy career as a bit part actor before becoming Clooney's producing partner, leading to him co-writing and producing Good Night And Good Luck with Clooney and doing the same on last year's highly disappointing Leatherheads. This picture is Heslov's debut as a director. He was able to use his Clooney connections to assemble an amazing cast, and he seems to have a good sense of how to stage highly amusing scenes that make good use of everyone's talent. Nevertheless, the individual moments that do work fail to coalesce into an overall picture that does the same, and therein is the real trick to solid directing: Seeing the picture as a whole, and recognizing a story with little to no pay off when you see it.
It's one of those movies that has a big ending that kind of postures itself in a faux feel-good way as being about liberation and believing in oneself, however misguided you may be. With most of those movies, however, as with this one, if you think about it for a moment, you realize that these are often wafer-thin, Hallmarky endings that don't make a lick of sense.