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Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 11:43 pm

Sly cast saves Goats

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There’s a meandering quality to Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, an odd but entertaining semi-fictional look at a secret government program whose purpose was to train soldiers to use an unconventional weapon to fight their enemies. As recounted in Jon Ronson’s best-selling nonfiction book, this elite group was known as the New Earth Army. The select few who were chosen to participate were taught how to use their minds to, among other things, pass through walls, locate missing persons through mental projection and attempt to achieve invisibility.

Yep, this is your tax dollars at work.

The movie opens with the disarming disclaimer that “more of this is true than you would believe.” Knowing how the government works, it’s believable that funds would be approved for such a crackpot idea and that such a small operation could easily be lost in the vast military system. Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is the reporter who stumbles upon this program, having interviewed a local who claims that he once belonged to this unit. Fate leads him to Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), the best of the best when it comes to all things psychic, who’s working for an American corporation in Kuwait City just as the Iraq war is gearing up.

While Wilton is intent on getting Cassady’s story, the former military man has other things in mind, namely setting out on a black ops mission with an unknown objective. Heslov’s structure keeps things moving. He uses repeated flashback to give us the history of the New Earth Army, showing us its founder, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) taking the first steps towards creating his unit of warrior monks. Django’s plans are foiled by recruit Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) who has his own plans as to how to use this knowledge.

Running barely over 90 minutes, the director keeps viewers on their toes by constantly giving us information on the program in a quick, witty manner. Truth be told, the flashbacks are far more engaging than the mission Wilton and Cassady find themselves on, and that’s due in large part to the work of Bridges and Clooney. These two have never been afraid of going out on a limb and their willingness to embrace the looniness of the script and their characters helps the film over a couple of rough patches. Bridges’ amiable personality is a perfect match for Django’s optimism, while his inability to deliver a false performance makes the character and all he believes in plausible. Meanwhile, Clooney is obviously having a great time, fleshing out Cassady as a man who’s simultaneously clueless and yet one step ahead of everyone else. It’s a sly performance that’s much harder than it looks as the actor is able to deliver this rather psychotic, broken man in a vulnerable light that’s winning.

While the film is entertaining, it does begin to wear a bit thin and lacks an emotional component that would have made it a complete success. As a diversion, it’s more than passable, primarily due to its veteran cast. However, in the end Goats is a movie that you remember for its interesting bits rather than its overall impact. In a sense, this feels like a warm-up for films of more substance that are sure to be released during the holiday season.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.
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