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The Auteurs Daily: Venice and Toronto. The Men Who Stare at Goats

 

The Auteurs Daily

The Men Who Stare at Goats

"Good Night, and Good Luck director George Clooney and screenwriter Grant Heslov again team up for Heslov's feature-directing bow, a wild spoof on the US Army research's into psychic phenomena and attempts to use same in its wars from Vietnam to Iraq," writes Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. "An anti-Army comedy toplining Clooney, Ewan McGregorJeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey should have been funnier than this, but even if The Men Who Stare at Goats is not worth comparing to Dr Strangelove, it should satisfy audiences with its great cast and patent absurdities, coated in quaint nostalgia for the happy hippie days of yore."

 

"Journalist Jon Ronson's caustic investigation into the US army's adoption of New Age psychological techniques developed in the early 80s and revived for the conflict in Iraq makes a rocky transition to the big screen," finds Time Out's David Jenkins. "This is mainly because screenwriter Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) fails to bring a compelling narrative to the episodic source material. Broadly comic performances from a decent A-list cast... generate lots of giggles, but the lack of cohesion makes if feel like a spirited, if naggingly inconsequential, work."

But for Variety's Derek Elley, this is "a superbly written loony-tunes satire, played by a tony cast at the top of its game. Recalling many similar pics, from Dr Strangelove to Three Kings, and the screwy so-insane-it-could-be-true illogic of Catch-22, this is upscale liberal movie-making with a populist touch, in Coen brothers style."

"Heslov shows lightness of touch throughout and, at 90 minutes, the film moves briskly," writes Screen's Mike Goodridge. "Bridges revisits his Dude character from The Big Lebowski with enthusiasm, Clooney shows a natural comic timing, and Spacey is a cheerful villain. There are also many laughs to be had from McGregor referring to the unit's other nickname The Jedi, bearing in mind his own legacy as Obi Wan Kenobi."

"[I]t really is Clooney's movie, and The Men Who Stare really showcases his old-school charisma," writes Empire's Damon Wise.

"The star power on display gamely papers over the occasional pedestrian note in Heslov's direction, which conjures up little visual interest or energy - a bit of a missed opportunity with Robert Elswit behind the camera," finds Guy Lodge at In Contention. "But it's the eccentric patter that drives this particular vehicle to its destination: if nothing else, it's the only war film you're ever likely to see with an Angela Lansbury namecheck. Sometimes a movie - even one about Iraq - doesn't need to be anything more than a good time."

"This is no sniggering piece of hippy-bashing," writes Wendy Ide in the London Times. "Like the film's journalist protagonist, the audience wants to believe in these tree-hugging soldiers and their noble ideals, however loopy their claims. And, even if we can't quite believe in them, it's hard not to love them."

Screens in Toronto on Friday and Sunday.

Updates, 11/9: "Rather than play up the bizarre nature of the plot or turn it into military satire, Heslov tries to find the sincerity of the narrative, resulting in a bland comedy about as credible as the loony characters within it," finds Eric Kohn at indieWIRE.

"This movie shouldn't be trying to touch your heart, but there it is trying to get all up in your chest," writes the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris. "It's afraid to be cynical."

"Like Hope/Crosby, Beatty/Hoffman, and C3P0/R2D2 before them, it's here that Clooney/McGregor emerge as one in a long line of Hollywood odd couples set hopelessly adrift in a sprawling desert," writes Seth Abramovitch in Movieline. "What is it about those arid landscapes that lend themselves so well to buddy comedy? Perhaps it's the blank canvas of rolling sand dunes - plus the added threat of death lingering overhead like a magnifying glass trained on an ant by a sick kid (or director) - that allows us to focus, free from distraction, on two sparring men grappling with the fundamental essence of life itself. Hallucinating For Godot. It's a recipe for funny."

Scott Tobias at the AV Club: "As Noel [Murray] says, this is a one-joke comedy, and one that wore thin for me about a third of the way through, when the details behind a secret military psych-ops unit are revealed and the witty back-and-forth between McGregor and a very sharp Clooney gives way to a more sprawling set of characters and complications."

"Goats never quite adds up to the promise of all its involved talent, working fine as a broad comedy about a hippie squadron until it faces a third act where it must either embrace or reject the psychic hooey it's spent the majority of its runtime mining for jokes," finds Stephen Saito at IFC. "The filmmakers also made a critical error in casting McGregor."

Updates, 12/9: Karina Longworth at the SpoutBlog: "Goats has a noxious tendency to slip into a Forrest Gump-esque aw-shucks revision of recent history through an outsiders wide eyes, expanding the kernels of truth to its central conspiracy to explain everything from the battle of Ramadi to the coinage of the phrase, 'Be all you can be.' Haslov seems to want to cross Strangelovian war machine absurda with an earnest longing for an eroded American utopia, but he's made film that's just not biting enough to be effective as satire."

"Heslov and scenarist Peter Straughan have shaped the material with considerable cunning," finds Tom Carson at GQ. "The unit's complicated back-story comes out in shaggy-dog snippets that work like blackout skits, but each goofy incident turns out to have a payoff once everyone's reunited. The real treat, though, is the acting - not only from Bridges, who at 60 can still fool you into thinking he's some genius casting director's latest off-the-street find, but from Clooney, who may have finally figured out that he says more about American craziness when he plays comedy than he ever will in the didactic likes like Syriana."

TIFF 09: Index; full coverage; lineup.

 

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