The American military has always been at the forefront of technological innovation often working on the fringes of scientific credibility in its constant search for new ways to locate and eliminate enemies. At times the military's eagerness to gain an edge over its adversaries has led it to some strange dark places many of which are chronicled in The Men Who Stare at Goats British author Jon Ronson’s real-life account of the U.S. government’s efforts to create an army of “psychic supersoldiers."
If you’re not familiar with the world of psychic warfare (and really why would you be?) the book’s title refers to an experiment conducted during the 1980s at Fort Bragg North Carolina in which specially trained soldiers using methods culled from the top-secret First Earth Battalion Operations Manual attempted to stop the heart of a goat using nothing but the power of the mind. The ultimate goal obviously was to develop the skill for eventual use on enemy combatants.
Chock full of similarly wild yet credible stories The Men Who Stare at Goats’ strange-but-true subject matter lends itself perfectly to film adaptation. Its structure — a disparate collection of loosely related vignettes covering over a 30-year timespan — does not. Nevertheless director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan gave it a shot refashioning the material to such an extent that the movie is no longer “based upon” Ronson’s book but instead merely “inspired by” it.
Thankfully Heslov kept intact two of the book’s greatest strengths: its lively irreverent tone and its fascinating array of colorful characters. The latter is no doubt what attracted the film’s star-studded cast led by George Clooney as Lyn Cassady a fidgety veteran of the “psychic spy” brigade whose chance meeting with journalist Bob Wilton Ronson’s onscreen counterpart (played as an American ironically by U.K. actor Ewan McGregor) provides the catalyst for the storyline.
As Cassady squires Wilton through the Iraqi desert en route he claims to a contracting gig he regales the awe-struck reporter with stories of the New Earth Army and its founder a Vietnam vet-turned-New Age acolyte named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). In the early '80s Django now a ponytailed flower child managed to obtain Army approval to spearhead a pilot program that would to train a legion of “warrior monks” to read minds pass through walls and disable enemies through a wide variety of non-lethal methods.
Any program like the New Earth Army is bound to attract its share of bad apples amoral folk who aim to use its teachings to enrich themselves and cause harm to others. In The Men Who Stare at Goats the entire rotten orchard is represented by Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) a sleazy manipulative charlatan whose devious machinations ultimately serve to bring down the entire operation.
Goats is at its loopy best as Cassady cycles through various off-the-wall anecdotes of Django and his increasingly bizarre training methods. But it falls apart when Heslov attempts to weave it all into a coherent storyline complete with a climax centered on a hairbrained scheme to spike the water supply at an American fort with LSD. It's understandable that Heslov felt compelled to invent something that could bring some resolution to the story but getting everyone high on acid? It sounds like a gimmick stolen from one of the lesser Revenge of the Nerds sequels.
Needless to say that last part wasn’t in Ronson’s book.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Adapted by Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero The Rules of Attraction American Psycho) from his own 1994 novel about the excesses of the rich and not-so-lucky in Hollywood circa 1983 this shallow film seems out of touch now in a time of economic turmoil — even if it is disguised as a period piece. Presented as a multi-story look at L.A. at its sordid best The Informers introduces us to a sleazy movie executive his estranged wife her poolboy lover a coked-out British punk rock star a fading newscaster a voyeuristic doorman a slimy ex-con and any number of beautiful vapid sexed-up twentysomethings who seem to spend their days either partying or snorting immune to any kind of social consciousness in an era marked by the dawn of the AIDS epidemic.
WHO’S IN IT?
The ensemble cast is split between older stars who’ve seen better days and a promising group of new talent unfortunately caught up in this mess. Billy Bob Thornton sleepwalks through the studio exec role while a pre-Wrestler Mickey Rourke (in a glorified cameo) shows us the kind of dreck he’s been stuck in the last few years as a tough ex-con who seems obsessed with someone called “the Indian.” Kim Basinger survives intact as a long-suffering Hollywood wife looking for a human connection from anyone who crosses her path while Winona Ryder projects just a shadow of her once-promising career as the aging newscaster. The late Brad Renfro who himself apparently fell victim to a drug-induced lifestyle is oddly touching as the peeping-tom doorman. Filling in the lost youth part of the equation are Jon Foster Amber Heard Austin Nichols Lou Taylor Pucci and amusing British star Mel Raido who do the best they can with their clothes on and off. Chris Isaak and Rhys Ifans also turn up in minor roles.
For what it’s worth The Informers has been handsomely shot and does capture emotional deadness well but unfortunately there’s nothing behind the façade of a group of characters we just don’t care about.
Ellis covered this all in Less Than Zero — same era same losers — so did we really need a LESS THAN Less Than Zero in 2009? It’s also a shame to see a fine group of actors so completely wasted both on screen and off.
BEST STONED-OUT LOSER SCENE:
The tenor of the whole film is summed up in the ice cube-filled bathtub sequence where a drunken almost catatonic British rocker proceeds to nearly kill himself trying to light a cigarette and answer a phone that NEVER stops ringing.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX:
This movie may already be available on DVD before you finish reading this review.
Ignacio (Jack Black) has never been particularly adept at anything but he has great passion for the things that matter to him: cooking and wrestling. Growing up in a Mexican orphanage ‘Nacho’ always dreamt of becoming a “luchador”--the term for a Mexican wrestler--and he even had the paunch to boot but alas it was highly forbidden by the religious orphanage. Now grown up he works as a chef for the only home he has ever known. He’s subjected to constant criticism at the hands of monks for the slop he calls food but claims he isn’t paid enough for quality ingredients. So as he sees it his only solution for more money is to pursue the forbidden fruit of becoming a luchador. He picks up a rail-thin peasant (Hector Jimenez) along the way to form a tag-team duo. Together they’re so horrendous that fans line up just for a laugh. But that makes them underdogs and we all know the fate of underdog characters in movies.
Jack Black maybe the best comedic actor of his extraordinarily gifted generation is a sight to behold. In Nacho Libre his mere pose which invariably sees him showcasing his belly as if a trophy is enough to arouse laughter. But once he opens his mouth forget it! Nacho’s broken English-and-Spanish dialect is tailor-made for Black as is his character’s penchant to break into Tenacious D-style song to profess his love for a nun (Ana de la Reguera). The problems with Black are due to his improper utilization at times (see “direction”) not his performance which is about as flawlessly inane as verbal/physical comedy gets. He taps into mania with an ease that hasn’t been seen since John Belushi. As Nacho’s equally hopeless sidekick Esqueleto Jimenez garners his fair share of laughs thanks mostly to the wrestling scenes. But his high-pitched yelps forced ineptitude and blank expressions grow old quickly.
Director Jared Hess should’ve quit after his first feature Napoleon Dynamite. Only because expectations for his follow-up in this case Libre simply cannot be met. That said he doesn’t only make sophomore mistakes; there is promise and talent on full display here. For instance Hess again exhibits an ability to find and/or create the most outlandish characters from the star all the way down to the unknown Mexican extras. But even at just over 90 minutes long the film drags and seems like a hilarious skit stretched way too far. That’s because although conceptually hilarious the story (which Hess co-wrote with wife Jerusha and veteran Mike White) is as thin as Nacho is portly. And as Hess has learned the hard way with bigger budgets come bigger constraints such as not-so-subtle humor (fart jokes pratfalls) to appease the teen masses. Hess’ fatal flaw however despite what will again be an underrated offbeat effort was to not stray further from his trademark movie thus keeping the animal that is Black caged--albeit in a large cage.