Review: ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’

Remember how much fun the cast of Ocean’s 12 looked like they were having while the audiences watching it weren’t? Same thing.

After a bad breakup, reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) decides to prove himself by hitching a ride into war-torn Iraq for a career-making story… if one can be found before he gets himself killed. Fate (or something) intervenes when he recognizes the name of a private security contractor: Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). According to a man Bob interviewed a few months earlier, Lyn was the best of a secret group of psychic soldiers, men who could kill things with their minds… you know, like goats.

The premise sounds ripe for hilarity: a reporter stumbles onto a story of secretly-trained psychic soldiers who attribute weak philosophies and random happenstance to actual super powers. From remote viewing (visiting distant locations in dreams) to enhanced perceptions (or whatever trip LSD will take you on), these guys truly believe they have become real-life Jedi warriors. The plot, however, seems more intent on snarkiness than comedy or drama; who is dumber, the guys who believe this crap or the person hanging onto every word? By the time the film is over, it feels like the real answer is the audience (for having actually watched the entire thing.)

How could something this interesting have gone so terribly wrong with a cast that includes Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey? The production seems overly elaborate and takes itself too seriously to buy into the premise; only once does anything happen that can’t easily be explained as something else (and that happens at the least acceptable time.) It can be argued that the film’s subtext is that the entire production is a government smokescreen, that the only reason it exists is to cast doubt on actual events. Even the opening credits claim the story is more factual than you would believe, but by the time its over, all of the is-it-real-or-isn’t-it adds up to was-it-funny-or-wasn’t-it.

Maybe the problem was having known character actors in knowingly comedic roles that undermined the plausibility of it; would it have made more sense or carried more weight with unknown actors? Listening to George Clooney claiming to be a Jedi warrior to Ewan McGregor is like Bruce Campbell claiming to be a playboy to Hugh Hefner, so that should be funny, right? At best, it’s merely smile-worthy and just as easily forgotten… pretty much like the entire film (and the Coen brothers can’t be held responsible for this one.)

(a one skull recommendation out of four)

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