I’m sure the makers of the new George Clooney/Ewan McGregor comedy "The Men Who Stare At Goats" knew they had a great concept on their hands when they optioned nonfiction author Jon Ronson’s book.
"Goats" looks at the secret history of a New Age unit in the army which experimented with techniques to try and make super soldiers who could pass through walls, mentally travel outside their bodies, and kill people and animals just by staring at them (hence the title.)
However, it looks like director/producer Grant Heslov and star/producer Clooney were so distracted by their unique concept that they forgot that films need to have compelling stories, great characters, and jokes that work.
The principle narrative of "Goats" concerns Bob Wilton (McGregor,) a troubled journalist, who has just lost his wife to his one-armed boss. Wilton feels like he needs to somehow prove his manhood or find meaning in his life. So he goes out in search of a story. Since the film is set about seven years ago he heads over to Iraq, seeking to be some kind of hotshot war correspondent.
Once there he finds Lyn Collins (Clooney) an intense military contractor who Wilton soon learns has a bizarre past. During the ‘70s Lyn was part of said New Age unit, in the film called the First Earth Battalion.
As Wilton and Collins wander around the Iraqi desert (for no discernable purpose) the film’s second narrative is revealed in flashback. We learn of Lyn’s mentor, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges trying to out-hippie his classic character of The Dude from "The Big Lebowski.") who spent years researching New Age spirituality and psychology to create a unique army unit. There really isn’t much of a story in this more compelling flashback, either. The Earth First unit doesn’t really do anything. It’s just depicted as a Glorious Time until Larry Hooper (a ridiculously underused Kevin Spacey) brought it down with his greed.
How on earth a movie this incompetently conceived could get made with such an all-star cast is a grand mystery. Clooney, McGregor, Spacey, and Bridges could only have thought this was a good idea if they were all stoned out of their minds - which given the themes of the film isn’t that far off of a guess.
Throughout the entire film I was pretty much bored cold. There was literally nothing there. The characters were empty shells, only somewhat resembling people the actors had played in other films. Spacey’s dark and malevolent antagonist reminded me of his card-counting professor in "21." Clooney’s idiot man-child was almost his "Burn After Reading" character minus the sleaziness. McGregor did the innocent, ignorant protagonist we’ve seen in everything from "The Island," to "Moulin Rouge!," to "Big Fish." And of course Bridges, as already mentioned, is in hippie mode. Thus the film at least inspires you to think about all the other better movies its actors have made over the years.
Honestly the picture’s only true highlight was the scene in which Clooney attempts to kill a goat by staring at it. My wife the animal lover appreciated the adorable goat as it chewed. It’s really the only thing that sticks in my head about the film.
Why didn’t Clooney and Heslov just do the obvious thing? Make a documentary! If they liked the concept of the New Age army unit they should have done a format where that material can really be front and center.
A great theme does not a great film make. Ronson’s got another book that would make a fantastic movie. Them: Adventures with Extremists explores the warped worldview of conspiracist crackpots like David Icke and Alex Jones. Let’s hope if it gets picked up to be filmed that the screenwriters watch "The Men Who Stare At Goats" and learn that a successful film can rarely be built on the shoddy foundation of a clever premise. Without a great story and meaningful characters it doesn’t matter what neat ideas you’ve got. Chances are you’ll just make a dud of a film whose peak moment is a goat chewing its food.
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