08/10/2012 07:15 am ET Updated Oct 10, 2012

Review: Goats

It used to be that a movie that celebrated the use of marijuana was considered shocking, scandalous, unacceptable and inappropriate. To some people, it probably still is.

These days, smoking weed is a staple in popular entertainment -- not just as a cheap punchline but as a regular story element, in movies and on TV. And not just pay-cable shows like Weeds, but the networks as well.

With the novelty worn off, it now takes more than the introduction of a joint or a bong to get a laugh -- or just an initial laugh -- out of an audience. That fact apparently has been lost on filmmaker Christopher Neil, whose Goats opens in limited release today (8/10/12) after its Sundance debut earlier this year.

A mild and wholly predictable coming-of-age tale set partially in Tucson and partly in an East Coast prep school, Goats focuses on Ellis (Graham Phillips), an achiever in spite of himself. It's not that he doesn't care about school; he's actually a pretty good student, despite the fact that he spends a lot of time toking up.

His parents are divorced. His mother Wendy (Vera Farmiga) is a new-age seeker who also happens to be a trust-fund baby. So she can spend her time doing yoga or meditation or any other form of self-actualization that catches her magpie-like sense of attention. Her relationship with Ellis is mostly through her checkbook.

With his father remarried and living out East, Ellis' main male role model is the stereotypically hermit-looking guy known as Goatman (David Duchovny), who lives on the property, does the landscaping, keeps a few goats and raises a particularly potent strain of herb. He's the wise man to Ellis' student, the one who encourages Ellis to apply to (and attend) the East Coast prep school that also graduated his father.

It's a familiar set-up, with lots of possibilities, but Neil doesn't go anywhere with it. What we get are a series of incidents in which Ellis, who would seem to be a pretty illusion-free kid, manages to discover that every single adult in his life has feet of clay. Though it's well-established that his has been a life of privilege veined with interpersonal disappointment, he somehow manages to harbor idealistic images of all these adults.

When they let him down, well, it's not exactly a surprise, at least to the audience. Neither is anything else in this energy-free movie.

This is a film that should easily and casually toss off its humorous ripostes. Instead, the actors struggle to seem off-handed, much as the script does. Goats needs to be more goat-like in every way -- unbridled, untamed, randy -- and it never is.

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