The Men Who Stare at Goats
Directed by Grant Heslov
Reviewed by Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard
There is a recent unfortunate history of hit books being inappropriately turned into narrative films. Both “Fast Food Nation” and “The Darwin Awards” could have been great documentaries, but each was turned into movies, whose plots just didn’t work, by usually good directors (Richard Linklater and Finn Taylor).
Add “The Men Who Stare at Goats” to that list. Despite an excellent cast and a few laugh-out-loud moments, this film takes a lot of potential and essentially goes nowhere. Ewan McGregor stars as a journalist trying to make his way into Iraq to cover the war. He falls in love with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who may be a businessman, may be military, and is definitely crazy. Clooney’s character appears to be named for Beat and hippie generation hero Neal Cassady. He’s part new age guru, part special forces. He leads Bob (McGregor) into a strange world of military paranormal research. Jeff Daniels basically reprises his role as The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” as the leader of the research team, while Kevin Spacey plays the prissy villain. The cinematography is also quite good, whether they’re showing up shots of Iraqi desert or a couple of hallucinogenic sequences.
So far, so good. But two things are missing: enough plot to make you actually care about any of this silliness, and the distinctive voice of author Jon Ronson. Ronson is a British writer known for his humorous coverage of fringe political movements in his books and “This American Life” segments. His writing and radio voice is distinct, both hilarious and annoying, by turns whiny and self-deprecating, the kind of guy you could listen to all day but wouldn’t necessarily want to be friends with. Above all else, Ronson is amazing at subtly showing the absurdity of the situations he covers.
McGregor, unfortunately, does not play a screen version of Ronson. He’s more of a straight man to Clooney’s down-the-rabbit-whole whack job. Extended across an entire film, it just doesn’t work. Given that they cast a British actor and made him play an American makes it even worse. But it did get me interested enough to maybe check out a few of the BBC documentaries Ronson has worked on over the years.
An inauspicious directorial debut from long-time actor and, more recently, George Clooney producing partner, Grant Heslov.
The project that seems to have great potential on paper. It’s the kind of formula that excites executive producers, perhaps too dazzled by star power and upside investment potential to read the actual script.
But it fails to deliver a rewarding story – fizzling out in a third act that has no payoff. I discussed this phenomenon when reviewing “The Invention of Lying” which was an example of an unusual high concept movie, which didn’t run out of material after introducing the premise and the quirky characters.
It’s a sad testament that in what ought to be a very funny movie, the funniest recurring gag has nothing to do with the narrative at all: It’s simply funny to see Ewan McGregor play a journalist and cynic, who has a hard time with the descriptions of “Jedi” training techniques, when he played Jedi-Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in the “Star Wars” prequels.
The sad thing is that the factual background and inspiration is quite interesting and, apparently, remarkably similar. Not that I think it’s so hard to convince an American audience that the military will spend money on just about anything that might provide an edge in any competition or combat. Yet another movie this year outclassed by its own preview.
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Review by Tony Sheppard
The Mayans saw this coming. Which may be why I didn’t see any Mayans at the theater. After all, the upside of foreseeing disasters is not having to sit through them. And this is the disaster movie to disastrously end all disaster movies. It’s like sitting through a clip show of highlights (or lowlights) from “The Towering Inferno,” “Earthquake,” “Volcano”/”Dante’s Peak,” “Airport,” and “The Poseidon Adventure”/”Poseidon” spaced out with one-liners that are cheesier than Wisconsin.
But rather than an end of a building/city/island/facility/boat story, this one tackles the whole world with earth’s crust-melting solar flares and Himalayanly tall tsunamis. John Cusack is a part-time dad to two munchkins who are beginning to identify more with mom Amanda Peet’s new guy, Tom McCarthy. But, after all, that’s nothing that a series of catastrophe-outrunning arbitrarily ridiculous vehicular chases and escapes and a planetary disaster can’t overcome. Meanwhile scientist Chiwetel Ejiofor is coping with President Danny Glover’s main advisor Oliver Platt and his own catastrophically flawed catastrophic calculations. And Woody Harrelson hosts a talk radio show that’s only marginally less hammy than his character. I’ll skip the assorted folks who largely exist to portray greed or helplessness through thick foreign accents.
In short, don’t go to this for the plot. Or don’t go to this at all. But if you do go, just go for the sheer epic-scale of the visual and logistical absurdity and more gaping cracks than a plumbers’ convention. For post-apocalyptic realism, wait for Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” this Thanksgiving.