“The Men Who Stare at Goats” makes comedic hay out of an apparently true effort by the U.S. Army to develop psychic super-soldiers who would conquer the enemy with their minds instead of guns. But while Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book on the subject is probably quite the page-turner, this satirical screen adaptation veers so wildly in tone and temperament that it rarely delivers as either a comedy or a timely satire.
Ewan McGregor — here, as in “Amelia,” struggling to sound flatly American — plays Bob Wilton, an out-of-work reporter from the Midwest who travels to Kuwait in the early days of the second Gulf War in the hopes of being embedded with a combat battalion. Instead, he winds up crossing paths with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who tells Wilton about his years in a top secret experimental army unit known as the New Earth Army, which trained soldiers to astrally project, break up clouds with their minds and any number of other New Age-y activities that one wouldn’t normally associate with the military. (The title refers to a darker exercise, in which the trainees attempted to kill livestock with nothing more than eye contact.)
While Cassady claims to be going to Iraq for commercial reasons, Wilton soon learns that he’s trying to find the New Earth Army’s founder, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who appeared to Cassady in a vision. When the two track down Django at a facility being run by Cassady’s arch-nemesis, psychic faker Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), “Goats” takes a dark turn that doesn’t fit with the movie we’ve been seeing — it writes a darkly political and satirical check that the screenplay by Peter Straughan (“How to Lose Friends & Alienate People”) doesn’t have the heft to cash.
One of the big problems with “Goats” is that it can’t decide whether to treat these psychic soldiers as jokes or as the real deal; sometimes we see Cassady accomplish amazing things and other times, he’s presented as a buffoon. Ultimately, this indecision makes it difficult to know if we’re supposed to be taking this story seriously or laughing it off.
One of the biggest missteps made by first-time feature director Grant Heslov (who wrote and produced Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck”) is the casting of McGregor — the accent problem aside, his presence is distracting in a movie about soldiers who constantly describe themselves as “Jedi warriors.” With McGregor having played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the “Star Wars” prequels, every time someone in the movie says “Jedi” (and it happens a lot) it becomes a painfully obvious self-referential gag, and the filmmakers just keep jabbing you in the sides with sharp, annoying elbows.
Clooney, at least, plays it thoroughly straight all the way through. The film may be unsure what to make of this character, but he believes in himself and his ability through and through, as does Jeff Bridges as a Vietnam vet who wholeheartedly embraces the alternate life options of the Woodstock era. Spacey, for the most part, has little to do but snarl.
Once you get past the wow-this-really-happened aspect of “Goats,” the movie doesn’t surprise or provoke the way it should. There are a handful of funny moments — most of which appear in the trailer — but overall, this is a film that would have benefited from someone staring at some rewrites.
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