Mis-advertising of movies is a disservice to film patrons and to the very movies the trailers and television spots seek to promote. False expectations simply can never be met, and setting them in the first place exhibits an extreme lack of faith in the film in question. Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, starring Ewan McGregor as a journalist investigating the US Army’s one-time secret psychic soldier program and George Clooney as a former member of said program, suffers from such a misguided marketing plan. More after the jump:
It’s not that The Men Who Stare at Goats would ever be considered a great movie–it’s not–but parts of it are quite entertaining; it’s not bad. The trailers,however, market the film as being laugh-out-loud funny, when most of the humor is instead more subtle or quirky. Don’t confuse this with the oft used tactic of trying to save a bad movie by putting all the funny moments in the trailer. In the case of Goats, the gags in the trailer just don’t represent the overall tone of the movie.
Ewan McGregor plays Bob Wilton, a down-an-out journalist who goes to the Middle East looking for a story to revive his career. He meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a one-time member of the military’s New Earth Army, a secret program headed by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) that was designed to develop psychic super soldiers. Cassady claims that he has been called out of retirement to utilize his “special skills” for a top-secret mission. Wilton tags along, in the process learning all about the Army’s research into psychic abilities. He eventually discovers that Cassady has no real mission, but by this time they are both lost in desert. They are rescued by PSIC, a psychic private military contractor organization run by Cassady’s nemesis Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who brought down the original New Earth Army. Wilton and Cassady find that Django is being held prisoner by Hooper, and together they set about foiling PSIC’s operation.
The movie is loosely based on Jon Ronson’s book by the same title. Ronson himself is a reporter, who, in his novel, detailed his own investigations into the real-life First Earth Battalion developed by the Army to research such psychic techniques. The fact that so much of what the New Earth Army attempted to do in The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on what the First Earth Battalion supposedly attempted in reality is one of the more intriguing aspects of the movie. Of course, in the film it’s played for laughs, even though it’s never implied that these efforts by the Army were ever taken with anything but the utmost seriousness. Indeed, the flashback sequences of the New Earth Army’s training are the funniest parts of the film.
With such an accomplished cast, the performances are fine without. Nothing Oscar-caliber, but jobs well-done. The biggest shortcoming inherent to the film itself is that the main story is not particularly engrossing or original. It’s the same problem faced by many similar movies trying to fictionalize a movie from a non-fiction work that is more a collection of facts or rules than a tome without a real tale behind it. The story cobbled together to interconnect those factoids or guides suffers due to the very nature by which it is forced upon them. I think that speaks directly to why the New Earth Army training flashbacks work so well–since they are snippets that can stand alone (even though they do contain story points), they are permitted a freedom and flexibility that make them funnier.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Special features include the obligatory theatrical trailer, deleted scenes, character bios and two featurettes. The deleted scenes are largely forgettable and the character bios are a joke, nothing more than teasers renamed bios to sound more grandiose on the DVD. Although one featurette, “Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion”, is the run-of-the-mill “Making Of…” bonus that you’ve seen a thousand times before, the other, “Project ‘Hollywood’: A Classified Report From the Set”, about the real First Earth Battalion is actually quite interesting.
In summation, The Men Who Stare at Goats is an amusing if not particularly original film, but forget the trailers–what you see in them is not what you get.