Coen brothers lite
The Men Who Stare at Goats
The Men Who Stare at Goats is just about as odd as its title suggests. Almost like a Coen brothers film (Jeff Bridges is in true Lebowski form and George Clooney is just about as close to his O Brother Dapper Dan as he can get), the dark-comedic film begs a second viewing. Directing newcomer Grant Hesloy and writers Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson (who penned the book the film is loosely based on), however, don’t quite capture the nuance or the flow of a Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou?
That said, this film is highly entertaining, riding the line between comedy and sci-fi drama. Much of the story is told by reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who, after his wife leaves him, decides to try more meaningful journalism in the Middle East. Before he leaves, though, he hears a bizarre tale from a sure nutball about a secret Army unit in the 1970s dedicated to psychological warfare. In Kuwait, he stumbles upon that unit’s star player, Lyn Cassady (Clooney), who eventually tells him about staring at goats and whatnot.
For Bob, this is the story of his career. He casts aside (almost nonchalantly) the actual war going on in Iraq and travels there with Lyn, where they get into a world of trouble on the roads, in search of something Bob isn’t even sure exists.
Much of the film is shown in flashbacks, as told by Bob who gets the story from Lyn. The “First Earth Battalion” is headed by converted hippie Bill Django (Bridges). The experimental unit’s exercises range from envisioning what’s inside a closed box to remotely locating lost men to, you guessed it, staring at a goat so long that its heart stops. The wrench in the works is Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a First Earth soldier who longs to have psychic abilities on par with the talented Lyn.
Eventually the battalion is disbanded and the long-haired, acid-tripping hippies at Fort Bragg, N.C., go back to being everyday soldiers. Or so they say.
The all-star cast is in top form here. Bridges is a natural as the doped-up leader of a psych war unit; Clooney puts aside his Rico Suave for a wide-eyed, twitchy oddball; and McGregor is perfect as the naïve confidant. The only disappointment, really, is Spacey, who plays deadpan quite perfectly but here could have been less straight-laced. It’s a comedy, after all.
The goats play a very minor role.
Some critics have panned the film as too loose, claiming it meanders off plot too much. I beg to differ. Sure, the story does get lost in the desert for a short while, but it all comes together quite nicely in the end—with a bang. And as mentioned above, like many good dark comedies, this one begs a second viewing.