The Men Who Stare at Goats

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I can remember watching a Channel 4 documentary a few years back about new age soldiers who would stare at goats and hang weights from their genitals. The staring was supposed to kill the subject they were staring at but I’m not sure what the weights did. Regardless, the documentary was very amusing and had a complete ‘what the fuck?’ aspect to it. It was hard to fathom that the military would allow a bunch of hippie soldiers to do all of these wacky things.

However, I quickly forgot about the program and it was consigned to the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind. But then one day I saw a trailer for a new film called The Men Who Stare at Goats. Suddenly it all came flooding back: the Jedi-hippie-samurai-warrior monks who spend their time taking acid and hanging weights from their genitals. I had to see the movie.

It would be kind of hard to fuck up a movie like this. The subject matter is just so silly. And to be fair, the filmmakers do a decent job. The film is well acted and very funny. But at the same time it’s nothing more than a fluff piece. There’s a tiny bit of commentary on Iraq and how corporations are carving it up instead of nations, but most of the film is gag driven. Which is fair enough – the film is very funny – but you aren’t really given the bigger picture. I wanted to know more about the climate of fear during the Cold War that allowed this very peculiar brand of craziness to flourish.

In general it’s the flashback sequences that I found the funniest. There’s a hilarious bit where George Clooney’s character joins the New Earth Army. He’s told to dance. At first he’s kind of stiff but then he loosens up, gets a goofy look on his face and begins to go crazy. It’s just fun to see Clooney let his hair down and it’s obvious that he’s having a great time.

This scene has another moment that had me cracking up. There’s a flashback to Clooney’s character as a child. We see why he’s so reluctant to dance. You see, the kid loves to dance to pop music but his father doesn’t approve. In fact, in the scene, the father, upon seeing his son dancing in a very feminine fashion, throws something at him and tells him to stop acting like a ‘queer’. It’s a very harsh moment, and it didn’t actually get many laughs in the theatre, but I was cracking up. The kid, the music and the timing are all perfect.

I was also highly amused by some of the horrific experiments that the army got up to. There’s a bit where the military want to know if a cat can telepathically tell whether its kitten is in danger. So we see a scientist about to stub out a cigarette on a kitten’s face. It’s horrific to think about, but the pathetic meow that the cat makes and the absurdity of the experiment make it blackly funny.

There’s a Dr Strangelove element to all of this. We find out that some of the experiments into telepathy and psychic phenomena are inspired by gossip, rumour mongering and hoaxes. The Soviets and the Americans both get into this nonsense because they fear that the other side will have some success with it.

Sadly most of this information is dwelt on for just for a few moments. The vast majority of the film focuses on the relationship between a reporter, played by Ewan McGregor, and an aging soldier, played by George Clooney. Yes their journey is consistently amusing, but it can’t disguise a rather moribund story.

It takes a while to learn why Clooney’s character wants to go to Iraq, and when we do find out, it lands with a dull thud. The wraparound story and the finale are the least interesting things in the film.

One of the film’s biggest selling points is its cast, and most of them do an excellent job. George Clooney, in particular, is excellent. As is Jeff Bridges, who basically reprises the role of The Dude. Ewan McGregor, on the other hand, lets himself down with his American accent. As my wife pointed out, it just sounds like a monotonous drone, which is a shame, as McGregor’s comic timing is excellent – he and Clooney work well together.

A bit of a head scratcher, though, is Kevin Spacey. Yes the man is funny but he seems to be making a career out of bit parts. I’m not saying that the role is beneath him, but it’s disappointing that he seems to be choosing ‘easy’ roles. It seems his film career is a brief holiday from his theatre duties at the Old Vic. He isn’t taking many risks.

Despite this, Spacey still contributes a couple of the film’s funniest moments. One scene in particular that I liked was when he makes a soldier take LSD and then bombards him with flashing lights until he goes mad. I also liked it when Spacey himself unknowingly takes LSD and contemplates blowing his brains out. He thinks about it for a second and then suddenly announces that he’s hungry. It’s both enjoyable and a letdown to see Spacey in these roles – he’s a funny guy but with films like Superman Returns and 21 he’s been punching under his weight for the last few years.

And that’s what the film does. It punches under its weight. With a bit more context it could have been a memorable satire. As it is, it’s just a funny, silly, forgettable movie. It’ll probably stay with me as long as the Channel 4 documentary that I watched all those years back.

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