Where’s an Attenborough When You Need One?: Neil’s Debut a Blank Slate
Acting and dialogue coach Christopher Neil, a vague member of the Coppola Clan, makes his directorial debut with Goats, an adaptation written for the screen by Mark Poirier, from his own novel. Having assembled a first rate cast for his feature, it’s too bad that not one memorable moment glances across the screen. Bland and tepid, the passage of time will only reiterate that quirky scenarios don’t provide the necessary backbone for a solid coming of age narrative.
Fifteen year old Ellis is about to leave his trust-fund headcase mother Wendy (Vera Farmiga) behind on her Tucson ranch house to attend the same isolated prep school his distant father found glory at. This is just too much for the New-Age advocate Wendy to handle, for, all his life, she has referred to his absent father as F*cker Frank. As she spins into cartoonish Age of Aquarius style paroxysms, Ellis says goodbye to his surrogate father figure, Goat Man (David Duchovny), also known as Javier, the Jesus bearded pot-smoking gardener that likes to go off on mysterious treks in the desert with goats. Goat Man breeds “disaster goats,” and “eco-friendly goats,” but oddly admits to despising the simple creatures. While he’s away at school, Ellis’ long absent father Frank (Ty Burrell) suddenly reaches out to his son, inviting him to spend Thanksgiving in Washington, DC, where Ellis can meet his new stepmom (Keri Russell), and discover he has a baby brother in the oven. Along the way, Ellis has minor snafus with his friend and roommate, has difficulty with his wacky mom, who has invited another lover to move in (Justin Kirk), has a slight romance with a cafeteria worker who gives the senior prep school boys sexual favors for money (she loves classic literature though—Score!) and discovers that his mentor, Goat Man, may not have it all figured out after all. And Ellis also learns that life has many challenges, so it’s probably a good thing his mom’s trust fund is in no danger of being depleted anytime soon.
If that sounds interesting at all on paper, it doesn’t manage to translate in moving images. Sadly, Duchovny’s entertaining turn as a raggedy pot-head Goat Man that beds nubile teen girls and enjoys being naked, never feels connected to the story, existing solely as a superfluous detail that neither aggravates nor propels the focus. Farmiga, who’s always game to try new and interesting things, seems to be having fun as an absolutely ridiculous mother, but, once again, she’s poorly written for the screen. We know nothing of her other than she’s prone to selfish, crazy episodes and has a lot of money. We don’t anything about why she came to be and we could care less. Unmoored from the proceedings, Farmiga once again rises above clichéd material (as in the recent Henry’s Crime, 2010) and for little payoff. The same can be said for Ellis’ obscurely written relationship with his father, and walk-on roles for Keri Russell, an uncredited Alan Ruck (not to mention a blink-and-miss cameo from Minnie Driver), all adding up to distracting nothings.
Overall, Neil’s film is comprised of a whole lot of threads begging to be molded into something more than a flirtatious mention that are as quickly abandoned as the titular goats, an animal only serving to add more quirky flair to a film already bloated with such details. And then there’s something viciously unappealing about watching a monied adolescent who has minor problems relating emotionally to distant parents, and whose only other big issues include when he’ll get high again and should he or shouldn’t he pursue romance with a young woman rumored to be the campus slut. While it doesn’t help that that Graham Phillips’ screen presence as Ellis is as barren as the desert landscapes of Arizona, a vista which is at least photographed beautifully and definitely usurps the film, Goats simply goes nowhere special.