Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Men who Stare at Goats (2009)

I've seen this movie twice now and I am still undecided whether it is as good as some folk would have it. The basic concept is brilliant and supposedly based on "fact" as covered in the original book by Jon Ronson. It goes something like this: The rumour that the American army had a pyschological mind-training unit was picked up by the Russians, who then founded their own, forcing the U.S. to actually create such a unit. Selected soldiers were trained by Vietnam vet Bill Django to become 'psi-warriors', special Jedi soldiers who could actually prevent warfare through their mental powers. Taking this eccentric premise with Jeff Bridges in full "Dude" mode as the drug-riddled, hippy dropout Django, creating his own love-in with war, and George Clooney as the strongest of his trainees, the film plays as more of a series of scenes, many in flashback, rather than as a coherent story.

Adding to the above likeable cast -- Clooney is great at playing goofy and the Dude abides-- are Ewan McGregor and Kevin Spacey, as well as an assortment of eccentric minor players. McGregor plays a heartbroken Midwestern local newspaperman whose wife has left him and who wants to prove to her and the world that he is a fearless journalist. He craves to become embedded in Iraq but plays a waiting game in Kuwait until he meets Clooney's Lyn, who is about to enter the country on a 'mission' revealed to him in a 'vision' and who reluctantly takes McGregor along and into a series of mis-adventures. These include becoming stranded in the desert, being held by a group of minor criminals, and eventually coming across the remnants of the old unit, now headed by Spacey. The latter is the villain of the piece, jealous of being upstaged by more powerful talents and responsible for Bridges' earlier dishonourable discharge. After Clooney's own departure, he placed a death hex on him, which Clooney firmly believes with kill him (although possibly not for another 18 years!).

The film is full of similar improbable and often amusing scenes, including Lyn's actually killing a goat by staring at it (for which he is full of remorse), and some sharp dialogue which raises the occasional smile. However this first feature from actor-director Grant Heslov, promises more than it delivers. As mentioned above, Bridges and Clooney are good value in enbodying their offbeat characters, but Spacey remains something of a cipher and it is a mystery to me how McGregor has maintained the career that he has had, since his character both here and in many of his other movie forays comes across as flat. It is perhaps an unfair putdown to suggest that the movie is sub-Coen Brothers, since it does have its definite moments. What it does not have is a cohesive structure that engages the viewer's interest throughout.
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