If you only paid attention to the critics and journalists who chronicle their wares on Twitter, you'd think the reaction at the packed press and industry screening of Grant Heslov's "The Men Who Stare at Goats" Thursday afternoon at the Toronto Film Festival was mixed. I'm not sure what screening those online friendly writers were at, but the genuine laughs and applause as the credits rolled told this prognosticator it was very well received.
Based on Jon Ronson's novel of the same title, the new comedy finds Ewan McGregor in one of his best roles in years as Bob Wilton, a Midwest newspaper reporter who has spontaneously journeyed to the safe confines of Kuwait in hopes that his bravery will convince his wife to return to him. Hunting for a story and an excuse to get into Iraq (where the action really is) he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), an ex-Military operative who is heading into the recently liberated country to land a contract to sell plastic garbage cans. In a bizarre coincidence, Wilton soon realies that Cassady is the same man a crazy psychic cook back in Michigan insisted was the most powerful paranormal weapon the Army ever had. Cassady soon comes clean and Wilton is swept away with his stories about a secret government New Age battalion lead by a former hippie (the always reliable Jeff Bridges) and the officer who sabotaged it (a winking Kevin Spacey). While Cassady's stories are fantastical and hilarious to anyone but himself, Wilton doesn't see much evidence of the man's abilities in their increasingly precarious situation. Or does he?
Heslov, a longtime collaborator of Clooney's who co-wrote and co-produced "Good Night, and Good Luck.," is smart enough to allow "Goats" to make some subtle commentary on the purpose of an Army in today's world while not having it overshadow the funny "true" events the movie recalls. That really helps "Goats" avoid the preachiness of many other Iraq-set films and seem more like quirky entertainment than anything else. The film benefits from a strong screenplay full of great one-liners, even if it seems to drift a bit toward the end. However, it's those great moments and strong ensemble work from Clooney, Bridges and Spacey (who actually are in numerous scenes together) that makes the film a must see for the fall movie season.
Overture Films acquired the independent production and word of mouth with older audiences it may end up being one of their biggest releases yet. That audience also happens to line up perfectly with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences membership. In another year, "Goats" would be a longshot to make the old five nominee system. This year's ten nominees and a wide open field make it a wild card to really pay attention too as awards season progresses.
Clooney stands out the most among all the actors, but he'll be competing against himself with his already acclaimed role in Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air." Additionally, it's going to be a tough call for the actor's branch to put him in a supporting role for "Goats" (no doubt Overture's hope). McGregor's character bookends the movie, but Clooney's got an awful lot of screen time for a "secondary" role. Adapted screenplay also seems a likely nod for Peter Straughan if the movie gets some momentum behind it.
Overture did wonders for "The Visitor" when very few really believed Richard Jenkins could get a Best Actor nomination. No one should count them out with "Goats" this time around.
"The Men Who Stare at Goats" opens on Nov. 6.
For constant updates on awards season and entertainment news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter at Twitter.com/HitFixGregory