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Eyes Half Shut
Clooney & company on a mission
by Molly Templeton
THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS: Directed by Grant Heslov. Written by Peter Straughan, based on the book by Jon Ronson. Cinematography, Robert Elswit. Music, Rolfe Kent. Starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. Overture Films, 2009. R. 93 min.
“More of this is true than you would believe,” The Men Who Stare at Goats — based, if loosely, on a nonfiction book by journalist Jon Ronson — claims at its start. Oh, I can believe. I can believe, for example, that Goats takes a perfectly good cast and gives them nothing new to do: George Clooney as a leader-type with a soft side and a source of vulnerability? Check. Jeff Bridges doing that washed-up hippie-dude (maybe that should that be Dude) he does so well? Check. Kevin Spacey, creepy and simmering? Yeah, yeah. Throw in Ewan McGregor as a young, not-yet-wise Obi-Wan in a story teeming with Jedi references and you’ve got your cast, all of whom are just fine, really, in a film that’s not satirical enough to be sharp, not out there enough to be truly wacky and not really clear on what it’s doing in the first place. My final reaction to Goats wasn’t total dismay — it’s not downright terrible, and it does have a few laughs — but bemusement. Why was that a movie?
Goats follows journalist Bob Wilton (McGregor), who heads to the Middle East in search of a meaningful story after his wife leaves him for his one-armed editor. There, he stumbles across Lyn Cassady (Clooney), whom Bob had heard of while interviewing a man who claimed to have been part of a military psychic ops team. Lyn is a touch paranoid and prone to giving a lot of weight to coincidence. He’s also on a mission, or at least about to leave for Iraq, where Bob also wants to go. The two team up for an extraordinarily rambling trip through the desert, during which we spend a lot of time in flashbacks. The best of these involve Bill Django (Bridges), the Army’s own would-be shaman and leader of the New Earth Army, which learns to dance, to cut loose and to stare down cute little goats. (Another flashback involves an unfortunately timed sequence in which a soldier jacked up on LSD opens fire in a military base.) Many of these flashbacks come across as overwritten infodumps in which Cassady explains to Bob, or Bob, in voiceover, explains to the audience who these men are and what they’re doing. Repeatedly. Director Grant Heslov and writer Peter Straughan poke gently at the would-be Jedi and the Army that funds them, but stop short of anything truly pointed, opting to twist their finale into a fuzzy, acid-washed bit that suggests that some men just need something to believe in — whether they’re believing in the power of a good story, the magic of a fake eagle feather or their own ability to part the clouds with a really intense stare.