Don’t worry. It’s okay to laugh. You don’t need laughs that cut off your ability to breathe nor do you need laughs that are tinged with that magical mixture of horror and schadenfreude. Sometimes it’s okay to laugh at jokes which you may not remember but come from care-free, silly humor that doesn’t condescend or rely heavily on slapstick. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is a fun, enjoyable film that may not cut deep with satire or delve deeply into its bizarre premise, but one which will keep you happy for 93 minutes and leave you smiling.
Based off Jon Ronson’s 2004 book of the same name, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is the tale of desperate reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who is looking to escape the sorrow of his wife leaving him for his editor. Wilton heads off to Iraq War II and has a chance encounter with Lyn Cassady, a name Wilton recognizes from an interview he did two years prior where the subject talked about his participation in a military program to train psychic soldiers. Cassady comes clean about the project and describes himself as a “Jedi Warrior”, a man who uses his powers of the mind for good. Realizing this is a far better story than simply covering the war, Wilton joins Cassady through a series of misadventures while learning about Cassady’s involvement in the “Earth Army”, created by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) and corrupted by Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey).
There’s not much in the way of overarching themes in “The Men Who Stare at Goats” beyond the old “Believing Is Seeing” trope. However, it doesn’t support any particular belief even though the Earth Army comes from Django’s investment in the 70s New Age movement. The juxtaposition of soldiers frolicking around in a peace-love style project is cute and funny, and while I am uncomfortable with blind faith, the use of the military as a means of non-lethal conflict resolution is uplifting. The film acknowledges that both blind-faith and new-age-militarism are pretty silly and it keeps the film light.
As the viewer surrogate, Wilton remains a straight man, expressing the fears and anxieties we would experience if we had undertaken a precarious journey and placed our trust in a man who claimed he had psychic powers. When it comes to comedy, Wilton is mainly used for slapstick and to set-up jokes and situations for Lyn. However, the film does get a big boost by having McGregor in this role while constantly having other characters mention Jedi.
Bridges does a fine job and Spacey proves that his talent isn’t in drama but in dark comedy and turning smarminess into an art form. But this is Clooney’s film and, as is his habit, he’s brilliant. Giving the character a gentle hug followed by the gift of a sunflower, Clooney never chews the scenery as much as he just lets Lyn be completely confident no matter how bizarre his actions or beliefs. It’s a silly movie but Clooney understands his character should be winking at the camera or making nothing but big gestures. No matter how incredulous we may be of Lyn’s beliefs, we never pity or dismiss him. It’s another example of how Clooney’s charm doesn’t always arise out of a bashful smile or a confident grin. The guy knows how to be likeable in everything he does.
Director Grant Hezlov understands comic pacing, which shots will provide the best comedic effect, and in so doing his direction matches the understated tone of the film. We assume that the outsized, unbelievable story of psychic spies and an adventure across the American invasion of Iraq would yield a sensational film but “The Men Who Stare at Goats” occupies this odd middle ground where it’s not subtle enough to be dry, but not bombastic enough to be over-the-top. The result is a film that some may find middling but I imagine most will find pleasant and enjoyable. 2009 has seen some painfully funny films but not every film has to send you out of the theater in stitches. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is the perfect film for a weekend matinee with friends or family where everyone will laugh, and that’s okay.
Rating —– B