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?
Two childhood buddies are forever changed by their first encounter with Playboy magazine. The story picks up 10 years later focusing on Tucker Cleigh a sex-obsessed moron who beds every girl he meets plus his conservative friend Eugene Bell who practices abstinence with his uptight girlfriend Cindi and joins her in teaching its virtues to younger students. But when Cindi decides she's ready to "do it" on prom night Eugene nervously complies but gets drunk falls down a flight of stairs and lands in a four-year coma. When he awakens he discovers Cindi has become a nude Playboy centerfold and joins Tucker on a chaotic cross-country trip to get to the Playboy mansion where he hopes to find Cindi — and Tucker gets to live out his wildest playmate fantasies.
WHO'S IN IT?
Miss March exists as a comic vehicle for its "stars " Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore members of a Brooklyn comedy group whose TV show The Whitest Kids U Know ran for several seasons on IFC. The team also co-directs and writes this witless hodgepodge of gross-out gags attempting to find humor in tasteless — not to mention sexist — setups. It makes last summer's The House Bunny look like Citizen Kane by comparison. Moore seems to be channeling early Jim Carrey as he plays a sex-crazed idiot who spends most of the movie trying to help his best friend (played by Cregger) lose his virginity despite an endless array of inanely conceived psychological and medical obstacles. With no one to rein them in these writer/director/stars overplay to the extreme and go for the cheapest laughs imaginable. Trying to mine physical humor out of situations dealing from epileptic sex to uncontrolled bowels this team throws it all at the wall but not much sticks. The rest of the cast including Raquel Alessi Molly Stanton 2007 Playmate of the Year Sara Jean Underwood and Craig Robinson — as an expletive-hurtling rapper named Horsedick.MPEG (in a gag repeated at least ten times) — are left twisting in the wind. Robinson however does get mileage out of a triple-X hardcore rap parody.
A scene where Eugene and Cindi try to teach sexual abstinence to a sparse audience of inattentive undergrads is amusing and well played. Unfortunately it occurs in the first 10 minutes. After that you're on your own.
Just about everything else including a dopey subplot involving a group of revenge-seeking firemen desperate stunt-laden gags egregiously over-the-top product placement for Playboy and one embarrassing scene after another designed to get the hardest R-rating possible.
MOST MEMORABLE LINE
Eighty-two-year-old Playboy founder Hugh Hefner gets to offer this bon mot in his one-scene cameo: "There's a bunny deep down inside every woman and if you see that bunny you're on to something."
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN …
The opening credits start. Then sneak into a better movie instead.
On the surface Stay seems to be a straightforward psychological drama about a psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) who is trying to keep a mysterious patient Henry (Ryan Gosling) from killing himself. But the deeper we get into it the decidedly weirder it gets. And not necessarily in a good way. Sam and Henry seemed to be inexplicably connected. While his girlfriend and former patient Lila (Naomi Watts) looks haplessly on Sam’s lightly held grip on the rational world begins to melt away. He can no longer figure out what is true and what is happening only in his head--all climaxing in a titular confrontation between life and death. Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling would have loved this one. Although he was surprisingly good as the romantic lead in The Notebook the usually somber Gosling is best known for playing quiet psychotics in such films as The United States of Leland and Murder By Numbers. In Stay he’s back to his old tricks as the suicidal Henry. Pale with mournful eyes and a perpetual cigarette in his mouth Henry is certainly a tortured soul looking for some relief. On the flip side Watts brightens the otherwise dismal surroundings as Lila but there’s also a tinge of sadness about her. The only weak link is McGregor. He can’t quite pull off playing the dedicated psychiatrist slowly losing his mind--but the Scottish actor sure has mastered the American accent (ditto for the Australian Watts). Director Marc Forster (Monsters Ball Finding Neverland) seems a bit out of his league with this jumbled-up hard-to-understand psychological fare. Granted the visuals are arresting. Forster strives to create a world which at first seems real but then little by little turns into a wildly shifting dreamscape in which scenes blend into one another seamlessly. The real problem here is the script by David Benioff (25th Hour). It tries to say “Look how clever!” by throwing you for loop after loop--except the loops don’t make much sense. You eventually stop saying “What the hell?” and start to get a pretty good idea how Stay is going to end up. And when the final twist is handed down it’s surprisingly not all that disappointing.