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Nov. 5 2009 - 11:45 am | 389 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

The Men Who Stare at Goats: More Than a Feeling

Clooney and McGregor, a modern-day Beatty and Hoffman

"I was like a blond farmboy on a distant desert planet."

The Men Who Stare at Goats, a poker-faced comedy about paranormal research in the United States military, has a lot of problems. Director Grant Heslov hasn’t mastered the kind of deadpan buffonery that, say, Steven Soderbergh made look so easy in the Ocean’s series. Peter Straughan’s screenplay rests uneasily in the gray zone between earnest current-events drama and stoner comedy. And despite an opening title that proclaims, “More of this is true than you would believe,” The Men Who Stare at Goats invents most of its major plot points and, sadly, greatly exaggerates the history of military interest in the paranormal. That is to say: While some small parts of this fact-based movie are true, the bits that you’ll most wish were true are not.

All that stipulated, it is awfully hard to dislike a movie in which a mustachioed George Clooney tries to convince a whimpering Ewan McGregor of his own psychic abilities by snapping, “Haven’t you ever felt like you were different? It’s the Jedi in you!”

Adapted from Jon Ronson’s book of the same title, The Men Who Stare at Goats follows Ann Arbor reporter Bob Wilton (McGregor) on an ill-fated trip to the Middle East in 2003. Wilton’s wife has just left him for his prosthetic-wearing editor — “that one-armed fuckhead Dave” — and Wilton, a milquetoast without much direction in life, heads to war, eager to prove himself in her eyes. Stuck in a Kuwait hotel, Wilton runs into Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a “supersoldier” who claims he’s been trained by the U.S. Army in remote projection, cloudbursting, telekinesis, and something called “sparkly eyes.” (In a highly enjoyable tossed-off scene, Cassady, driving through the desert, demonstrates “sparkly eyes” for Wilton, repeatedly glancing over at him intensely. Sparkly eyes look like regular eyes, but funnier.) Wilton might not be much of a reporter — at one point he can’t even remember a local guide’s name — but he knows enough to follow a crazy person into the desert in search of a story.

Long hair, short mustache

Long hair, short mustache

Soon enough, Cassady and Wilton are wandering the barren sand dunes, bickering in the blazing sun like a modern-day Beatty and Hoffman. In between being kidnapped by Iraqis, rescued by Americans, and trapped in a firefight between two private security companies, Cassady tells Wilton the story of the New Earth Army. A special division instituted, he claims, at Fort Bragg in the 1980s by long-haired officer-turned-shaman Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, in full flower), the New Earth Army created soldiers with paranormal powers: They could locate a prisoner thousands of miles away, disable an enemy with positive thoughts, and, utilize sparkly eyes for whatever it is they are meant to do. By far the most satisfying scenes in The Men Who Stare at Goats are these flashbacks to a gentler time, as Jeff Bridges hands out daisies to generals and encourages George Clooney to dance like no one’s watching. Neither Bridges nor Clooney are afraid to be silly; indeed, they seem to relish the opportunity, with Bridges basically revisiting the Dude, and Clooney signifying his embrace of the New Earth Army ethos with a ridiculous long wig — although, incongruously, he maintains his closely-trimmed mustache.

The arrival of disgruntled science fiction writer Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), however, throws Project Jedi (as it was known) into disarray. Soon soldiers who had been trained to spread peace are sitting in rooms with de-bleated goats, intently trying to stop their hearts. And years later, in the Iraqi desert, Cassady and Wilton find what remains of the New Earth Army, using select principles from Project Jedi for torturous ends.

All this is pretty silly, of course. (The ending is particularly silly.) There was a Bill Django, it turns out: Jim Channon, a lieutenant colonel who did indeed write a manifesto for a New Earth Army. (Sample: “Soldiers can be the principal moral ethical basis on which things political can harmonize in the name of the Earth.”) But, as far as I can tell, no Project Jedi was ever created, and no long-haired, pot-smoking soldiers ever paraded around Fort Bragg. But if Heslov, best known as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, can’t quite pull off the complicated tone of a movie that wants to revel in the possibilities of a new age army while simultaneously mocking the goofball hippies who would believe in such a thing, his actors maintain perfect pitch throughout, and make The Men Who Stare at Goats a lot more fun than it has any right to be. Especially welcome in minor roles are Stephen Lang as the grinning general who sponsors Project Jedi, and Stephen Root and Nick Offerman as fellow New Earth Army recruits.

Clooney has made a career out of alternating between roles that exploit his innate leading-manliness (the Ocean’s movies, Out of Sight, Michael Clayton), and roles that subvert it. He’s giving one of his Coen brothers performances here, going way, way over the top, his Cassady a mix of O Brother’s unhinged hayseed and Syriana’s washed-up spook. It’s to his credit as an actor that he’s happy to do both, and if The Men Who Stare at Goats isn’t exactly a timeless classic — five years from now, it’ll come on cable and you’ll think, Oh yeah, that movie — it epitomizes the force for moviemaking good that Clooney’s movie-stardom has become.

Early in the movie, Wilton asks Cassady how he amplifies his supposed paranormal powers. Clooney, staring soulfully into the distance, intones that it takes a lot of focus, blah blah blah, then comes right out with it: “I find drinking helps,” he says. “And listening to classic rock. I like Boston.” Needless to say, it isn’t long before “More Than a Feeling” rocks the soundtrack. It’s the perfect theme song for The Men Who Stare at Goats, its mix of earnestness and cheese just right for a movie that happily dispenses both.


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    Film critic for the Washington Post; contributing writer at New York. dankois.com.

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