The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

(In theatres, November 2009) As someone who read and enjoyed Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book shortly after its initial publication, I’m perhaps a tougher audience for a film “inspired by” The Men Who Stare at Goats.  It’s certainly not easy to adapt: an exploration of the often-strange ideas (including psi powers) that the US Army investigated, Ronson’s work straddles a thin line between goofiness and weightier moments.  To its credit, the film does manage to do justice to a number of moments and ideas: the militarization of peaceful ideals, the way “non-lethal” torture can be dismissed as a joke, the twisted logic that leads to paranormal research, and so on…  Even the book’s most disturbing moment (“…it almost looks as if he’s laughing”) gets a nod.  (There’s also one spectacularly unfunny moment caused by the sheer improbable juxtaposition of the film’s release a day after the worst home-base shootout in US military history.) The film’s structure also manages to weave a coherent history taking place over three decades (at one time nestling a flashback within a flashback) and almost act as an imagined sequel to Ronson’s book, which often stops with characters being “reactivated” for mysterious purposes.  Various odd scenes and progressive concepts also make The Men Who State at Goats richer in ideas than most satirical comedies: It ranks with The Hunting Party and Lord of War as a member of the growing geo-sardonic genre.  But what’s less impressive is the way a very traditional buddy-movie structure (with a heavy dash of “mid-life crisis” and “kids playing tricks on bumbling authority”) has been imposed on the material, leading the film to less and less believable moments.  Ewan McGregor and George Clooney do great things with their roles (much of the Jedi jokes are much funnier when spoken by “Obi-Wan” McGregor, and Clooney has no perceptible shame in an often-unglamorous role) but the film itself goes from the fascinating to the cliché at high speed, and the result feels like a let-down, especially during the second half.  But such are most adaptations, of course.

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