'Goats': Shaggy Mess
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Goats" wants to stand out from the pack, but the simple fact is that it's just another indie film: featuring large stars in small-but-showy parts where the overacting makes up for the underpayment, based on a too-introspective novel, featuring a handsome young actor who serves as the stand-in for the writer. There are occasional laughs in it, sure and fine: The film's central plot and themes ping-pong young Ellis (Graham Phillips) between his smother-mother Wendy (Vera Farmiga) and his bad dad, Frank (Ty Burrell), and young Ellis' social shifts are amusing enough.
As the film wanders across the landscape, though -- either the flat, baked expanses of the desert outside Phoenix where Ellis lives or the pinched and crabbed East Coast prep school his alumni dad is paying for -- it can be hard to sense the overall point of it all. "Goats" nibbles at some of the more rewarding and less well-trod dramatic ground in this story before mostly ambling and wandering from old, over-grazed plot point to plot point like a hungry and not particularly picky goat, its appetite far more avid than its tastes are refined.
And while Ellis is buffeted between his mom and dad, he has one constant in his life: Goat Man (David Duchovny), the bearded and bristly landscaper and pothead who stayed in the guest house when Ellis' dad split. Goat Man is warm, friendly and constantly high to the kind of degree where he needs to carry a stepladder to scratch his own ass. Ellis relies on Goat Man, as his mom is caught up in an endless series of Western-ish New Age rituals and her bad new boyfriend, Bennet (Justin Kirk, perhaps a little over-the-top but still hilarious). Ellis' absent, workaholic, emotionally distant and East Coast old-school dad is retired and well-off, with a much-younger girlfriend (Keri Russell) and his own secrets.
Screenwriter Marc Poirier adapts his own novel, and it's easy to see the familiar page-to-screen traps that "Goats" falls into. On the page, narrating and being a point-of-view character are active tasks we join in. On-screen, though, a central narrating point-of-view character can seem passive and unengaged, and that's what happens here. Director Christopher Neil, with previous experience as an acting and dialogue coach, maintains his focus on individual moments in performance for his great actors. What he doesn't do is maintain a through-line of story, of event and consequence for his characters to exist in and explore.
Duchovny tries manfully to get past his usual too-smooth ironic and urbane persona, but it's hard to not see Goat Man as just the actor with extra hair and a slumped air of slumming. Farmiga's too good and too smart to play a character as scattered and insufferable as Wendy. Phillips is an easy-to-watch young actor, but Elllis' big revelation that some people are not in fact as you would expect them to be is hardly earth-shaking. (Again, dramatic developments that play as heavy and fraught with meaning in literature often underwhelm on the screen.)
Perhaps worst of all, there's nothing especially cinematic about the film, either. It's hard to get a bad shot pointing a camera at the Arizona desert, and Neil gets a little natural beauty on the screen, but ultimately you can tell that as a director, he's far more comfortable with his actors than his camera. Chronicling the kind of well-to-do WASP young angst we've seen done before and done better, "Goats" is a stubborn, mangy, tangled-haired mutt of a movie -- one that could have used a little more guidance and construction and a little less free-range "quirkiness."
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.