Monday, September 10, 2012

The Men Who Stare at Goats

Going by what some reviewers say, you either love The Men Who Stare at Goats to bits, or you just plain hate it, you either think it's very funny in a screwball sort of way, or you think it's sort of funny, funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha.

I enjoyed it.  It doesn't have any sort of real plot, or even much of a story, but it gives George Clooney the chance to play an absolute goofball in the most serious way possible, and that's worth the price of admission alone (although it has to be admitted I watched it at home after recording it off the TV).   Clooney co-produced this movie, as he did the last film I saw him in, The American.  The contrast is extreme.  The American seemed to have wandered off whatever the planet it started on (apart from making a total hash of the book it was adapted from); Goats was never on this planet, in a sense; the book it's based on isn't a novel anyway, so it doesn't actually have much of a story, and it's played for laughs - something The American might well have benefited from.  The American took itself utterly seriously and fell flat on its face.  Goats has no reason to be serious about anything, so if it falls over it doesn't in the least bit matter.

I don't think it does fall over: it has two excellent performances at its head from Clooney and Ewan McGregor - an actor who's been cast in some roles that were totally wrong for him (think Moulin Rouge).  McGregor played the young Obi Wan Kenobi and seemed to me to make a mess of it; he seemed permanently uncomfortable when he should have been confident.  Here he plays someone who is permanently uncomfortable, and plays it superbly.

Both Clooney and McEwan know when to go a little crazy and when to hold back.  Jeff Bridges is here too, thoroughly enjoying himself as a rather too mature hippy, and Kevin Spacey has a relatively small role in which he makes no bones about the fact that he's the villain of the piece (whatever that actually means in this context).

The basic premise of the film is that the US Army somehow managed to acquire a unit (under Bridges) who claimed they could use New Age techniques to win wars.  That leaves the film wide open to show all sorts of nonsense being performed with every degree of seriousness.   The men in the unit believe with all their hearts that they're onto something.  We think they're barmy; they don't know the word barmy exists.

Jon Ronson's book, on which the movie is based, is a different kettle of fish.  The humour is still there, but it's all too close to the tortures of Guantanamo Bay to laugh at very much.  For better or worse, the movie takes a different tack altogether.  The elements are the same, but the tone is different.  I think we know enough of what has gone on at Guantanamo and other torture places not to want to see it played out on the screen in violent realism.  For once it's good to laugh instead of crying....

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