The Men Who Stare at Goats

Post date: Nov 8, 2009 3:33:48 AM

I wanted to like this movie. I really did.

I'd rather not spend much time giving a plot summary on this one . . . I'm more interested in the conversation my dad and I had on the drive home from the theater. So here's a quick rehash: George Clooney and Ewan McGregor star in an allegedly true story about a group of Army-trained psychics attempting to bring peace -- first to Vietnam in the 70s, then to Iraq earlier this decade. McGregor plays a humdrum journalist left bitter over a failed marriage and yearning excitement overseas. He finds Clooney randomly in a Kuwait restaurant, who claims to be a Jedi and shows some paperwork to prove it. Sorta. Jeff Bridges cashes in with a self-parody: the long-haired hippie leader of New Earth. Kevin Spacey accepts the typecasting as a creepy guy with a deadpan look and ill intentions. Goats and LSD abound, and everyone in the theater gives a good chuckle when they appear. Now onto the jist of the conversation. At least, what I took home from it. If you had just seen the movie, you'd probably be asking these questions, too: What is this supposed to be. Is it an absurdist comedy? A satire? An exposé of what "they don't want you to know" (since, according to the opening credits, "More of this is true than you believe")? It's not that I demand clear-cut categories or a "point" to everything I see. (Although, for my dad, it being pointless was enough to dislike it on principle.) But when a movie is both pointless and largely unfunny, you start to wonder what it is that you're supposed to enjoy. Here are reasons why none of these categories fit. Absurdist comedy: Don't get me wrong. I love random humor. The use of non-sequitors made Monty Python one of the greatest troupes in TV/film comedy. On paper, the concept of psychics killing goats with hard stares and bringing peace to the Middle East with LSD sounds funny. But in practice, it came out just so-so. The last few scenes are laughable not in the sense that they're funny but that they're dumb. As all the "_____ Movie" spoofs (except for the first two Scary Movies) have taught us, it takes intelligence to pull it off. Satire: The humor here is too light to be satire. Who's being mocked? Mystics? Cynics? Hippies? The whole U.S. military? Men with prosthetic arms? Men Who Stare pokes a little bit of fun, but never feels angry or ironic. Exposé: OK, ---SEMI-SPOILER ALERT--- The concept is that many events in this movie really happened, but when the journalist recorded the events on computer and sent it to the national media, the only part that broke into the news was the fact that U.S. troops tortured foreign detainees with strobe lights and music from the Barney children's show. Director Grant Heslov's treatment of said torture is frankly appalling. Like the rest of the film's comic incidents, a detainee's torture is treated as light humor. Whether or not this was intended, in practice, this scene got the same kind of chuckles as every other half-grade joke surrounding it.

There are ways to portray war atrocities that make filmgoers laugh out of discomfort, not out of straightforward humor. Mr. Heslov, I direct you to Catch-22 and Full Metal Jacket. Our nation's reputation is still healing from unforgivable, inhumane, and ineffective acts of torture in Iraq, Afganistan, and Guantanimo Bay. If you're going to bring it up, do it right.

Like I said, I wanted to like this movie. I like George Clooney, I like Jeff Bridges, I like psychics, I like goats, and I liked the quirky movie poster. But the film's formulaic ending, stale humor, overall pointlessness, and the above-mentioned scene in particular turned me decidedly against it.