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Once you get comedy in 'Goats,' you get the film ... sort of

POSTED: November 11, 2009 10:00 p.m.
/Overture Films

George Clooney, left, is a First Earth warrior in "The Men Who Stare at Goats," who claims to have been trained to kill goats by simply staring at them. Kevin Spacey is the power-hungry protege of the man who wrote the book on psychic warfare and has trained the First Earth warriors.

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“The Men Who Stare at Goats” begins by issuing the statement “More of this is true than you would believe,” the same way many films tell us their story is based on true events.

The movie is a fictional comedy, but it is based on Jon Ronson’s nonfiction book of the same name. And that is crucial to understanding and enjoying the movie.

Because as you watch “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” you might come to the conclusion that the outlandish military research projects shown in the movie are absurd and obviously fictional. And you’d be wrong.

The funniest thing about “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is just how much of it is, indeed, true.

The story begins with small-time, loser reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) interviewing a quack named Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), who claims to have been part of an Army training program called the First Earth Battalion. This experimental unit was formed with the goal of creating an army of superheroes with psychic powers. Crazy, right?

Bob thinks so, too, until while on assignment in the Middle East he happens upon one of the very men Gus told him about, the ultimate First Earth warrior, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney).

Cassady tells Bob he and the other First Earth soldiers became warrior monks. They developed the abilities to read the enemy’s thoughts, to pass through walls and, of course, to kill goats merely by staring at them.

In other words, Cassady and his comrades are Jedi warriors.

The obvious joke here is that Ewan McGregor played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the three “Star Wars” prequels. It’s a funny casting choice, but they overplay the Jedi joke. McGregor plays the role just fine, but his presence constantly threatens to reduce the movie to a one-note song.

Bob follows Cassady into Iraq on a meandering trip through a war zone and the history of the First Earth Battalion. We learn about the soldier-turned-guru of the program, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). Django literally wrote the manual on psychic warfare, but he is later disgraced by his power-hungry student Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey). Hooper becomes the Darth Vader figure, using the First Earth techniques for destructive, selfish purposes.

For much of the movie, Bob can’t decide whether Cassady is a brilliant superman or just a true believer kook. And neither can we, because as crazy as all the First Earth stories seem, they somehow bear the clothes of truth.

Turns out, more of this movie IS true than seems believable. The filmmakers have basically taken a bunch of real, documented anecdotes and strung them together with a fictional plotline about Bob the reporter.

We end up with a movie that alternates between urbane wit, silly slapstick and pointed satire.

The sense of humor is reminiscent of the Coen Brothers, especially “The Big Lebowski” and “Burn After Reading.” In quality, “Goats” falls somewhere between those two movies.

The comedic timing doesn’t always work. In a film with Clooney, Spacey and Bridges, the only logical person to blame for that is director Grant Heslov. Heslov, who boasts impressive acting and producing credits, isn’t exactly a beginner, but this is his first big-budget feature. It appears he wasn’t entirely up to the task.

Do remember this is a satire of the military set in the Middle East, so some will feel their buttons being pushed. The most uncomfortable scene has nothing to do with politics, though. At one point a soldier goes haywire and opens fire on his fellow soldiers. It is intended to be one the film’s most serious, poignant moment, but the tragic Fort Hood shootings make it painful to watch.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” reaches a handful of hilarious peaks, but it doesn’t add up to a very memorable comedy. I suspect most viewers would be happier paying rental prices for this one.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.




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