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.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.
Fresh out of the slammer Calvin “Babyface” Sims (Marlon Wayans)--or to us “Little Man”--robs a jewelry store along with his partner in crime Percy P (Tracy Morgan). After the heist is somewhat botched Calvin drops the jewel in the purse of an unsuspecting young woman Vanessa (Kerry Washington) in an attempt to elude cops. Calvin then follows Vanessa and her husband Darryl (Shawn Wayans) out to their suburban home where it’s calm and where the thief learns Darryl is desperate to father a child. So three-foot-tall Calvin shows up on Darryl’s doorstep in a dog basket goo-goo-ga-ga-ing much to the couple’s delight. They take him in and turn a blind eye on the fact that he has facial stubble and a mouthful of pearly whites as Cal tries repeatedly to retrieve the diamond. Amid countless muck-ups and pratfalls the trio grows closer with even Cal showing his heartfelt side. But he is still a criminal with a motive a motive which Vanessa’s elderly father (John Witherspoon) thinks he’s got figured out. Shawn and Marlon Wayans are easily two of the top five actors in the Wayans clan which is a feat if you know their genealogy but at this point it’d be nice to split the brothers up. Their roles here weren’t easily executable--especially Marlon’s--but it’s as if they implore us to not see them as artists. Marlon whose head is superimposed atop a little person’s body--a not-so-special effect--boasts some funny lines as a hardened thief but makes for a grating “toddler ” even though most will inexplicably find his proportions to be hilarious. Meanwhile Shawn actually steals more of the physical gags like getting hit in the groin oh maybe a dozen times by various objects. And it’s a sad day in Hollywood when people like Ray’s Kerry Washington bolt the good stuff for a Wayans vehicle but hey at least she looks great! The true comedy here sparse as it may be comes from numerous cameos by In Living Color alumni and three SNL-ers (Rob Schneider Molly Shannon and Tracy Morgan). Marlon Shawn and Keenen Ivory Wayans are an absolute testament to the Hollywood Machine in action. They “get” Hollywood more than perhaps even George Lucas does making them studio execs’ best friends. They are also more in touch with their fanbase than anyone and churn out precisely what their loyalists crave. In short they are utterly fascinating. Their movies? Not so much. Director Keenen often seems to mistake irreverent for crude and co-writers Marlon and Shawn--well clearly they didn’t envision a brainbuster but they produced (at least) one: We’re merely supposed to laugh at the fact that Vanessa and Darryl don’t notice Calvin’s perpetually changing ages spewing unintelligible babytalk in one scene and playing football in the next. Otherwise it’s more or less a series of Keenen alternating locales to exploit pratfalls that would arise if the man-child problem existed.