I've always wondered when up-and-coming filmmakers would get around to emulating the Coen Brothers. One of the few contemporary examples of true auteurs, the Coens are long overdue for imitation. And, like most imitators, Grant Heslov's efforts pale in comparison to those of the originals. Even with a cast that sports two Oscar winners (George Clooney and Kevin Spacey) and two nominees (Jeff Bridges and Ewan McGregor) as well as ace cinematographer Roger Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton), The Men Who Stare at Goats is a shapeless and visually unimpressive dud that never delivers on the entertaining premise of its opening 40 minutes.
Taken from journalist Jon Ronson's nonfiction bestseller of the same name, Goats is a droll comedy about a top-secret wing of the U.S. military that initiated bizarre pseudoscience programs where soldiers were trained to become psychic "warrior monks." Skipping back and forth between the Vietnam and Iraq war eras, the film kicks off with a simpleton reporter (McGregor) from Ann Arbor deciding to embed himself in Iraq after his wife leaves him for a one-handed editor. Killing time in Kuwait he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a mysterious Special Forces operator who claims to be on a covert mission as an American-made Jedi warrior. Soon we're learning about the rise and fall of the New Earth Army, a bizarre black ops program that trained soldiers to read an enemy's thoughts, walk through walls and even kill a goat simply by staring at it. Unfortunately, there was a glowering Sith (Spacey) among the Padawans, and the program was undone.
It's all intended to be a satirical stab at the recent slew of self-important silver screen diatribes about the wars in the Middle East, as well as the incredibly deluded efforts of our military. And though there's a certain amount of glee to be derived from ex-Obi Wan McGregor blundering into a plot filled with self-anointed Jedi who explain their powers and philosophies ad nauseam, the whole thing is just too meandering and chaotic to find traction. Not even Clooney's crazy-eyed intensity (on loan from O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and Bridges' flower-power dude-ishness (on loan from The Big Lebowski) can compensate for Heslov's inability to find focus, pacing and rhythm. There are a few good laughs early on, but once the main plot kicks in the chuckles quickly erode. The film's final reel degenerates into LSD-induced giggles and a weirdly sincere call for peace, playing like a bad Xerox copy of Coen Brothers-style zaniness, but without any of their subtext, style or highly disciplined plotting. Not incisive enough to rate as satire and not absurd enough to bolster its status as comedy, The Men Who Stare at Goats proves that imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery. Sometimes it's just plain wrong.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].