Despite a cryptic title, and an even stranger trailer that reveals nothing about the content of the film, Grant Heslov’s second film ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’ is an unexpected comedy gem.
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by UK journalist Jon Ronson, the start of the film introduces investigative reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor). It is 2003 and his seemingly perfect life has just fallen apart; his local reporting job has become mundane and his girlfriend has just left him for his one-armed boss.
In an attempt to impress his ex, Bob decides to fly to Iraq to become a war journalist. However, he has no way into the country, until he meets Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney) who claims to be a former member of the New Earth Army, an obscure branch of the US Army headed by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges).
In a series of flashbacks throughout the film, Bob learns that the New Earth Army were trained to become psychic soldiers as a means of alternative combat after the Vietnam war. The members of the regiment were trained to bend spoons, pass through walls and kill goats by staring at them. They are the antithesis of your stereotypical soldier; they wear US Army uniforms, yet they have long hair, beards and practice yoga, not push-ups. They call themselves Jedi Warriors, which is made all the more amusing by the presence of McGregor, who famously played Obi Wan Kenobi in the latest Star Wars films.
Although the film concerns itself with war, it is surprisingly funny, even to the extent where scenes of kidnappings and the explosion of a roadside bomb become moments of humour.
Perhaps due to the presence of The Big Lebowski’s Bridges, but also due to the film’s amazing landscapes that show the expanse of nothingness in Iraq, the film has a Coen brothers feel about it. Yet the humour isn’t quite so sophisticated, and the ending not quite so satisfying.
The comedy in this film is not for everybody. There are some laugh-out-loud moments that some will not find funny at all. The riotous ending is also rather unbelievable, and underpins the more subtle humour of the first half of the film. Yet when the film’s subject matter as a commentary on Iraq is taken into consideration, it does demonstrate its position that the war was a joke – particularly in the scene where Bob drunkenly watches George Bush give a disjointed speech on TV.
The film offers no resolution to the war and is a refreshing change to some of the more serious cinematic offerings of late. Although it may lack the dark political aspects of ‘Three Kings’ and ‘Dr. Strangelove’, it is still well worth a watch, even if it is just to see Clooney resemble a hairy Dave Grohl in the 80s flashbacks, or just to reminisce as you watch Bridges reprise his role as the Dude one more time.