Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Men Who Stare At Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats is a great title for a movie.  Maybe not as good as "The Men Who Do Things to Goats," but that's a flick that could go in all the wrong directions.  Oddly enough, goats play a relatively small role in this film.

This is the somewhat true story of a military program that was developed to harness the psychic power of the human mind.  The tale is told primarily through flashback, as George Clooney's character explains the events to Ewan McGregor.  This program began in the 1980s, headed by Jeff Bridges' character, and it attempted all sorts of paranormal stuff.  Traveling through the astral plane, invisibility, walking through walls, telepathy, and killing via only eye contact (which is how we get the title) are the tangible goals for this group.  The two star pupils are played by Clooney and Kevin Spacey; the two become rivals because Clooney likes the New Age-ish notions of expanding human consciousness, while Spacey is interested in the more practical (read: lethal) military applications.  It's appropriate that Bridges calls his men Jedi warriors, because Clooney and Spacey represent the light and dark sides of The Force.  Years after the military decides that the program is a wash, McGregor follows Clooney into modern-day Iraq, where they find a new program being run by Spacey and representing everything Clooney and Bridges hated.

This is a goofy plot.  You would expect the movie to be just as goofy, like maybe Big Lebowski- or O Brother Where Art Thou?-level goofy, but it's not.  Whose fault is that?  I blame the Coen brothers for not writing or directing this film.  Sure, you could blame Jon Ronson, whose book the movie is based on, but that just takes away from the solid fact that this should have been a weird, goofy Coen brothers movie.  It already had Clooney and Bridges!  What more enticing do those men need?  Well, parts of the film are as funny and goofy as you would want them to be.  The directing emphasizes weird, awkward moments and sometimes those moments pay off with funny.  However, every time the movie feels like it's going to finally get permanently weird, it stops and takes a cold dose of reality.  There are a lot of depressed characters in this movie and they are well-developed, so you feel for them.  Jeff Bridges, in particular, does a fantastic job with his dramatic scenes.  He's subtle, physical, and understated, but it is really worth noticing.

The acting in this film is as good as you would expect from three Academy Award-winning actors.  Bridges resurrects some of his laid-back surfer ways from Lebowski and Clooney performs with his usual deadpan confidence (although noticeably not a lady charmer here).  Kevin Spacey doesn't have quite as much opportunity to impress here, but he's always fun to see as a bad guy.  McGregor is good too, but he's stuck in the straight man role.  I'd like to see him take another stab at an outright comedy, because he's got good timing and I know he's a good actor.

The acting performances actually increase my frustration with this film.  These guys are usually enough to make me interested in a movie if even one of them is starring, but their presence here makes the movie's shortcomings more annoying.  The fact that the actors do so well might make you think that the direction was good, but this is the first major directing project for frequent Clooney collaborator Grant Heslov.  I think Heslov has friends that are awesome actors and they helped make him seem impressive.  It's a neat trick that I'd love to try.  Still, there are a lot of awkward moments that are not used for dramatic or comedic purposes and the pace drags at times.  Ultimately, the choice to balance the humor with so much realism had to come from the director.  I disagree with this choice because treating the ludicrous as reasonable for the sake of humor degrades any attempt at sincerity.  If Heslov wanted the dramatic moments to have a lot of impact (and, judging by the performances of Clooney and Bridges, he did), he would have necessarily had to tone down the deadpan comedy.  The other option would be to make the depressingly realistic portions of the movie more comedic.  It's not impossible for a comedy like this to have a point or to have heart, but it is a difficult task to accomplish with two styles (goofy comedy and sincere drama) that are so very different.

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