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When looking in retrospect, it’s always nice to know that you made the right decision. While at the Toronto International Film festival this year, my friend and I had a conflict of movies with Up in the Air and The Men Who Stare at Goats. Both stared George Clooney, but only the one had any trailers and/or marketing push at the time. We picked the Reitman film in the end—and it was one of the best movies we saw at the fest—figuring to catch Goats during its theatrical run. Boy was that the right move as this film is a disappointment. Grant Heslov’s work isn’t horrible, in fact it was very funny, but it just doesn’t go anywhere. The premise is absurd, despite the disclaimer starting it claiming that “more is true than we may think”, and the plot progression uninteresting. It really is the acting that makes the movie worth watching as everyone’s timing and comedic styling fire on all cylinders.

To get people on the correct page right now, George Clooney is not the star of this film. He is onscreen for a lot of it, no question, but the true lead is Ewan McGregor as reporter Bob Wilton, a stand-in for the original novel’s author Jon Ronson. The Jedi quips aren’t subtle because of this casting—Mr. Obi-Wan himself—but he does real well as the delicate flower who sat at a desk all his life watching as his wife left him for a one-handed co-worker. So, with nothing to lose and a woman to attempt to win back futilely, he does what other younger Americans did, he goes to war. To keep in line with the humorous tone of the film, however, he of course has no credentials to cross over into Iraq and only by coincidence does he meet someone to piggyback over with. You see, a past interview of his was with a self-proclaimed psychic-spy that just happened to mention a fellow comrade named Lyn Cassady, a name that stuck with him to recognize on the nametag of a stranger at the hotel where he watched, in vain, as the syndicated reporters came back from the frontlines.

Cassady—a great turn from Clooney—takes Wilton under his wing and tells him about the top-secret government organization he was a part of years ago. Bill Django, played with an over-saturation of flower power hippy aesthetic by Jeff Bridges, heads the division in order to make super-soldiers that can serve without violence, (which in and of itself is funny since the non-violence is made into funnily extreme violence when practiced). Men like Cassady use their mental telepathy to find prisoners of war or terrorists that have otherwise eluded capture. The ability to stop a man’s heart by staring at them is also attempted, being practiced on goats, the animals used to test a soldier’s wound dressing skills. As is the normal stereotype for 60s style living, a lot of psychotropic drugs were utilized, as well as interpretive dance, creating longhaired warriors seeing with their third eye into the unknown. Eventually getting shutdown is of course a foregone conclusion.

All this history is told via flashback while Wilton and Cassady travel through Iraq looking for the ‘retired’ army man’s newest mission’s rendezvous. He saw his old teacher Django through a vision, calling him to arms, thus leading him on his current journey. Wilton has just found himself as part of the zaniness, slowly becoming a believer and even possibly a seer too. A kindred spirit, he gets captured by locals, gets trapped in the middle of a US privatized military firefight between competitors, (blamed on insurgents), and a visitor to a new government organization with flashes of the past psychic work used in a more focused way. How much any of this is fact, and has been experienced by Ronson himself, is unknown, but at least he and scriptwriter Peter Straughan filled it all in with some big laughs and a ton of head-shaking humor. You want to feel for some character, though, yet they are all either selfish of completely bonkers. So, the only way to really enter the movie is as a voyeur, hoping the events will lead somewhere or at least remain entertaining. The latter thankfully does occur, for the most part anyway.

McGregor is his usual affable self, playing the straight man to Clooney’s few-screws-loose ‘superhero’. Clooney is great, showing his comedic chops and really excelling like he has this past decade. The mix of stoic army look and cutting loose improvisation really make him into a three-dimensional character, truly believing in his abilities and calling. His confidence, despite having been given the ‘death touch’ that will kill him any time during the rest of his life, (yeah, that’s right), is unmatched, never showing fear, knowing his powers will get him out of any situation. Yes, most of those powers consist of coincidence and plain dumb luck, but his belief is everything. It’s not like he is trying to walk through walls or anything. The crazy stuff like that is left to guys including Stephen Lang, (it’s weird seeing him in a comedy after all those Avatar trailers), Bridges, Stephen Root, and Kevin Spacey, who is very hit or miss lately, but on his game here with much needed villainy. Their interactions make all the difference, keeping an otherwise static plot alive with color, putting a smile on your face even if you leave the theatre wondering what you just saw was all about.

The Men Who Stare at Goats 6/10

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photography:
[1] George Clooney stars in Overture Films’ THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. Laura Macgruder © 2009 Westgate Film Services, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[2] (Left to right.) George Clooney, Waleed Zuaiter and Ewan McGregor star in Overture Films’ THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. Laura Macgruder © 2009 Westgate Film Services, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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