Monday, August 23, 2010

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" (2009)

Starring Ewan McGregor, George Clooney and Jeff Bridges
Written by Peter Straughan
Directed by Grant Heslov

Somewhere hidden inside "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is a hilarious satire of war, and the lengths we will go to in order to win them.  It's too bad, then, that this fine idea is wrapped up in two hours of mediocre sitcom antics from a cast capable of so much more.

Ewan McGregor stars as Bob Wilton, a journalist who, after his wife leaves him, heads for Iraq to prove himself to her.  There he finds not the greatness in combat that he had envisioned, but instead spends his time hanging around in Kuwait, unable to make his way into Iraq, the laughing stock of embedded journalists.  One day, he meets Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney), a man who supposedly works for a company that produces trash barrels.  Lyn knows how to get into Iraq and offers to take Bob with him.

Lyn soon reveals to Bob that he is, in fact, retired from a special battalion of the US Military that focuses on psychic powers such as remote viewing, telepathy and telekinesis.  These men refer to themselves as "the Jedi."  As Bob and Lyn make their way across Iraq towards some unknown destination (Lyn eventually reveals to Bob that he is on a secret, black ops mission), Bob learns more about the Jedi and their history.  At seemingly every turn, something goes ridiculously wrong, detouring them from finding their destination.  Bob and Lyn run afoul of kidnappers, terrorists, IEDs and... rocks.

Sprinkled throughout the movie are a series of flashbacks detailing these Jedi, from their formation under the leadership of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) to their downfall thanks to a jealous and slimy psychic named Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey).  Eventually, Bob and Lyn manage to find their destination in the desert: a "dark side" psy-ops base now led by Hooper, which dedicates itself not to preventing war as the Jedi would, but to furthering the concept of psychological warfare through subliminal suggestion and creative torture techniques.

Even here, when presented with a truly intriguing idea, the movie shies away from attempting to do anything more than slapstick comedy, which is too bad, considering the potential for truly biting satire.  As a comedy, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" isn't even all that funny.  The cast is trying, but the script and direction just don't have enough energy bring it all together.  There are a few moments in the film that are quite hilarious, but "a few moments" isn't enough in a two hour comedy.  Most of the film just sort of squeaks by, eliciting a light chuckle every few minutes, and not bothering to develop much in the way of a point to the story or the characters.

None of the characters are particularly well developed, if developed at all.  Spacey and Bridges give fine performances, but their characters are so one-note it's hard to care.  McGregor and Clooney work well enough together, but again, the material isn't good enough for their chemistry to really matter.  The film just likes to speed along from one quirky encounter or flashback to the next.  Even McGregor's whole motivation for going to Iraq is given only cursory exploration, and is resolved in a sort of "Oh, right, we were supposed to be doing this..." manner in the final scene.  The meta joke involving McGregor's confusion over the Jedi (having starred in three very shitty "Star Wars" films) is cute the first time around, but grows aggravating over the course of the picture.

I can't really recommend this film.  It squanders its potential on silly sitcom antics that just aren't funny enough to make it worthwhile, and wastes its amazing cast as well.