George Clooney shines in "The Men Who Stare at Goats," a cheesy flick about spies specializing in the paranormal.
Dozens of half-formed comedic conceits spray like buckshot all over first-time director Grant Heslov’s debut feature, a disappointingly cartoonish adaptation of Jon Ronson’s chillingly funny exposé regarding the madness of military psych-ops. Claiming to be “inspired by,” rather than “based on” Ronson’s stranger-than-fiction investigative work, Peter Straughan’s screenplay stuffs so many fascinating real-life footnotes into such a broad, boringly conventional buddy-flick framework, The Men Who Stare at Goats inadvertently cheapens its own material.
Ewan McGregor stars as made-up journalist Bob Wilton, a presumably intended audience surrogate who runs off to Iraq after his wife ditches him for his one-armed editor. Seeking to reassert his manhood by reporting under fire, Wilton is stranded in the Green Zone until he meets George Clooney’s odd, mustachioed Lyn Cassady, a former “Jedi Warrior” recently reinstated from a long-disbanded, top secret 1980s Special Forces unit, which covertly trained cadets adept in the paranormal arts.
Believe it or not, that last part is actually true. Former Commanding General of U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command Albert Stubblebine wasn’t just a key player in the invasions of Panama and Granada, he was also a nut for parapsychology who famously tried to walk through walls, heading up the kind of clandestine military projects that begged spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller to teach recruits how to stop a pig’s heart with their minds. Stubblebine’s stand-in is here rechristened Hopgood and played by Stephen Lang with way too much wide-eyed jack-assery for such a fascinating figure.
Same goes for Jeff Bridges, recycling Dude-isms aplenty as a goofball riff on an actual disgruntled Vietnam Vet who returned to the Special Forces after a lengthy New Age vision quest, espousing the utopian ideal of super-soldiers bearing flowers instead of weapons, winning our enemies’ hearts and minds through beams of psychic goodwill—and if all that didn’t work, well, at least they’d be adept in non-lethal combat techniques.
Clooney spills all this lengthy back-story to McGregor, after they hit the road to Baghdad and suffer mishaps aplenty on a mission that stubbornly remains a mystery. Straughan’s screenplay attempts to work two timelines at once, the herky-jerky structure devoting most of its energy to anecdotes from the early 1980s, only occasionally reminding us that we’re also following these two dudes in Iraq. The air of indecisiveness isn’t helped by the odd choice of allowing McGregor to narrate Clooney’s flashbacks.
In fact, McGregor narrates every damn minute of The Men Who Stare at Goats , often helpfully over-explaining information that is already visible onscreen, reiterating character motivations time and again, and generally serving as the sort of aural annoyance that Matt Damon’s astonishing voice-over so mercilessly mocked in The Informant! (Also, McGregor needs to stop attempting American accents. It’s just embarrassing.)
Clooney, however, is sublime. He plays the crackpot, possibly psychic—or maybe just psychotic—Lyn Cassady with the controlled stillness of a Zen master. Matter-of-factly deadpanning outrageous flights of fancy, and only gradually allowing us to see the grim sadness and disappointment behind his eyes. It’s a sly, comic inversion of Clooney’s Oscar-winning Syriana performance, another former true believer whose country let him down.
Alas, if only anyone else involved shared George’s knack for sly restraint. The Men Who Stare at Goats is just too big for the room. Even scenes that sound great on paper—as when two private military contracting companies accidentally start a firefight at a Baghdad gas station—feel strained and uncomfortably buffonish. Everybody’s mugging when they should’ve just tried acting.
It’s impossible to watch Clooney kick up a covert op in Iraq again without naturally thinking of David O. Russell’s brilliant Three Kings . Heslov’s film, to its credit, attempts to show how hippy-dippy psych-ops explorations have been perverted into modern-day Gitmo torture techniques, but The Men Who Stare at Goats is too low-stakes and jokey to make the point properly. It needed Three Kings ’ outraged, vigorous sting.
Real satire draws blood. This one just keeps nudging you in the ribs. ■
"The Lunchbox" is worth savoring