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Stare at Goats a wasted satiric opportunity
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Stare at Goats a wasted satiric opportunity

by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

Men Who Stare at Goats Now Playing

Men Who Stare at Goats stars George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, and has Robert Patrick tossed in for good measure (I'm a die-hard X-files fan and I'm not embarrassed to admit it). So the flick has star power and the premise is ripe for some awesome satire, right?

Small-town reporter Bob Wilton (McGregor) loses his wife to a one-armed vet. He reacts by heading off to war himself. As he waits in a Kuwaiti hotel to cross the border into Iraq where the action is, he runs into Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a former special forces agent whose unit, the First Earth Battalion, specialized in New Age psychic warfare. The special unit is lead by Vietnam vet Bill Django (Bridges), whose goal is to change the nature of warfare. One of their experiments involves staring at goats until their hearts stop.

There is a lot to like about this movie. The stars do exactly what they are supposed to do; they shine. Clooney is perfect as the overachieving believer who gets steamrolled by Larry Hooper (Spacey), the delightfully villainous malcontent who screws up the groovy vibe of the First Earth crew. Bridges does what Bridges does best, playing the affable freewheeling wise-ass battalion leader with a heart of gold.

McGregor gets a bit lost amid the star power, but you hear his Scottish brogue bubbling up now and then. I find McGregor curious. He's a solid actor, but his looks are very everyman. I suppose this works to his advantage when taking on roles such as Christian in Moulin Rouge, in which he sings his way into your heart. We don't expect someone who looks so mundane to hold his own in the presence of Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent, and John Leguizamo (in a flashy role that was made for him). Yet he does hold his own, and that makes things interesting. In Men Who Stare at Goats, McGregor's Wilton mainly follows Cassady around and plays the straight man.

There are a couple of supporting players that steal scenes from the big guys. Stephen Root (King of the Hill and No Country for Old Men) is a chameleon who always gets it right. Stephen Lang, who you might recall from Save Me, the Chad Allen vehicle that got serious play at Queer film festivals from here to the ends of the universe, is hilarious as Brigadier General Dean Hopgood.

The story, based on the book of the same title by Jon Ronson about an actual special forces unit, is a fascinating setup. The satire should be rich and creamy and omnipresent. Unfortunately, the satire falls flat much of the time.

There are some truly funny moments and smart jokes. The riff about Jedi Knights between McGregor and Clooney is terrific, and the very idea of training soldiers to prevent war using only their minds could spawn a 20-page essay all by itself. You also must keep an eye out for Clooney's ear trick; it's a gas. There are some funny moments and sharp satire.

But there are also many wasted moments. Watching soldiers tripping on LSD while playing with military equipment should be either utterly frightening (Apocalypse Now) or really, really funny. Here, it's neither.

The film also loses steam in preachy moments designed to get the message out. I don't mind a film with an agenda; in fact, I like a film with a point of view, especially if it's one I agree with. This film pokes fun at the futility of the never-ending search for the ultimate weapon and the degradation wrought on both parties when torture is employed. These are both ideas I can get behind. However, if the narrative becomes subservient to the message, you'll lose me every time.

Maybe we can chalk it up to a less than experienced director, Grant Heslov, and screenwriter, Peter Straughan. Men Who Stare at Goats is veteran actor Heslov's second feature as director and Straughan's second feature as screenwriter. Whatever the problem, massive star power can't save a lackluster story marred by wasted satirical opportunities and a preachy streak. It's good enough to rent next February, but there's no need to see it on the big screen.

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