Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Men Who Stare at Goats

If you take away the guns and bloodshed and all that, war is actually pretty funny. It’s really nothing more than people dressed strangely walking funny and falling over occasionally—a surefire recipe for hilarity, really, until someone loses an eye or a couple of cities or whatever. At any rate, that seems be to the idea behind the laboriously madcap military farce of The Men Who Stare at Goats. Based on the fact that the American military once experimented with training psychic soldiers, the film posits the New Earth Army, a top-secret squad led by a burnt-out Vietnam vet who tries to teach his men to love the Earth Mother and walk through walls. This is a tantalizing hook bearing little meat, so the film transposes all of the silliness onto present-day Iraq, where a journalist discovers a former member of the group on a super-secret mission. Are the psychics searching for WMDs? Trying to blow up Saddam Hussein through the sheer power of their minds? Hoping to bring peace to Middle East by projecting their mental auras of acidhead hippie love crap? The possibilities are endless, if fairly stupid.

But then, almost anything would be preferable to the aimless semi-comedy we get instead. Hopes for an absurdist satire of the Iraq war are quickly dashed by dud gags, like the bit where two rival security companies engage in a firefight while butting in line at the local gas station. Oh, those darned paramilitaries! Will they never learn? (Cue wacky music.) Now, I’ll grant you some of the performances are fine. George Clooney is amusingly deadpan while spouting the most inexplicable nonsense, and Jeff Bridges is appreciably Dude-like (on the other hand, Ewan McGregor is Ewan McGregor—take it or leave it). But the humour has little kick for such a loaded subject. Even while scoring lazy laughs at hippie nonsense, the film still makes a comic set piece out of a squad of soldiers tripping on acid and playing with flowers, as if this were the most subversive notion in the world and not just a 40-year-old cliché. Military technology has advanced considerably in that time. One might have hoped that the American comedic arsenal had developed beyond the 1960s as well.

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