The Men Who Stare at Goats - TIFF 2009 Day 4

dir. Grant Heslov

Heslov, a frequent writer, producer and collaborator with George Clooney, picked a good one to make his directorial debut with. It's a quick little gonzo blast of comedy that barely slows down to catch its breath. Ewan McGreggor is finally given a decent role as a reporter who goes out to Iraq to impress a woman and stumbles upon the history of paranormal research and development in the US military.  They were called the New Earth Army and their soldiers were referred to as Jedi's -- which lends itself to no end of meta comedy coming from the exasperated McGreggor. Clooney is a former Jedi of the New Earth Army who may or may not be re-activated and in the middle of some secret mission. Their initial meeting in a green-zone hotel is absurdly funny stuff. To Clooney's character, his history as a "level 3" weapon of peace for the military is deadly serious business even when he lets McGreggor in on the detail that alcohol and classic rock always allowed for better results.

McGreggor ends up following Clooney into the desert and becomes part of his "mission" which involves his old mentor Jeff Bridges and his nemesis Kevin Spacey. Their history together is told in flashbacks that actually work better than they should given the amount of wigs involved -- being a comedy has its advantages. Bridges playing a new-age guru to a bunch of soldiers works just as well as you may expect and Spacey continues to take baby steps back into watchable films. There are some great cameos, particularly Robert Patrick as the head of a security outfit that first helps and then nearly kills Clooney and McGreggor as they try to avoid the pitfalls of traveling through Iraq.

Oddly enough it seemed to get too goofy as the film tried to wrapped itself up. In the same way that a lot of comedies dating back to Blazing Saddles and beyond have had difficulties hitting the right madcap note to end on, The Men Who Stare At Goats kind of peters out in a series of goofs that don't quite live up to the highs that came before. But the film does what well casted, well written comedies should do: allow the actors to bounce off each other and allow the material to sing. McGreggor and Clooney are great together -- better than Chase and Ackroyd if not Hope and Crosby. It helps that the material here has to do with a bizarre, possibly true, or "truer than you may think" story about the military trying to tap into psychic energy as a weapon. That's ripe material and the movie does a great job of running with it.