The Men Who Stare at Goats


The Men Who Stare at Goats

That goat shouldn't have eaten George Clooney's script.

(Overture) George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Waleed Zuaiter, Stephen Root, Rebecca Mader, Glenn Morshower, Nick Offerman, Tim Griffin, Jacob Browne, Todd La Tourette. Directed by Grant Heslov

The human mind is in many ways the truly final frontier. We know so little about it, yet our minds our capable of amazing things. Were we able to harness these abilities we could literally do anything we can imagine.

Bob Wilton (McGregor) is lacking somewhat in the cojones department. A journalist, he takes a job at a small town newspaper, marries his college sweetheart (Mader) and interviews quack psychics (Root) who claim they were part of a military program to develop psychic super soldiers, whose mental powers would allow the military to spy on “the enemy” psychically.

Shortly after this, Bob’s life goes to hell in a handbasket. His wife leaves him for his editor (La Tourette) and Bob falls apart. He decides to prove his manhood to his wife to go to Iraq to cover the war as a truly macho war correspondent but true to form he can’t get clearance to cover anything in the war zone, so he sits in a hotel in Kuwait, enviously watching the other journalists swap stories from the front lines while they totally ignore the inexperienced Bob.

This is when he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a ramrod-straight retired soldier whose name Bob remembers from his interview with the psychic, who mentioned Lyn admiringly as “the best psi in the outfit.” He is reluctant to talk to Bob at all but when he sees something that Bob was doodling in his notebook, he does an about face and becomes willing to have Bob accompany him into Iraq on a “black ops” mission.

It turns out that Lyn has recently been re-activated to go on a mysterious mission into Iraq. When they drive into Iraq, Lyn practices his psychic skills to “keep sharp” by cloudbursting. He becomes so distracted by this he runs right into the only boulder in hundreds of miles of sand.

The two seem to be rescued by a passing truck but it turns out to be militants who capture Lyn and Bob. Lyn tells Bob a little more about the history of his outfit, “Project Jedi” (a not-so-subtle jibe at McGregor’s previous role as Obi-Wan Kenobi) and the man who created it, Lt. Col. Bill Django (Bridges), a free-spirited sort who embraced the new age and proto-hippie movements in California in the ‘70s a little too closely after a near-brush with death in Vietnam. When he returns to the Army, he does so with claims that he can create soldiers who can walk through walls, find missing persons through psychic means, and influence the minds of others. He captures the imagination of a somewhat unrealistic General (Lang) who is concerned that the Soviets are conducting a similar program.

The self-described Jedi Knights undergo unorthodox training methods, experiment liberally with psychotropic drugs and have mixed success in the psychic warfare department. Lyn has the most promise and becomes Django’s apprentice while another soldier named Larry Hooper (Spacey) seethes with jealousy, wanting to be the pre-eminent psychic on the planet. He takes matters into his own hands and when a young recruit dies during an experiment that Hooper clandestinely conducts using the methods of the notorious MK Ultra project, Hooper manages to shift the blame to Django who is shown the door, discharged and disgraced.

The two escape the militants along with an Iraqi civilian (Zuaiter) but run into a firefight between competing security contractors. As the pair travels further and further into the heart of enemy territory, Bob begins to suspect that he is not hearing the whole truth – and that Lyn might just be insane.

This is based on what is reputedly a non-fiction book written by an actual British journalist and makes no bones that not everything in the story is 100% factual. In fact, the opening screen tells you that much with a graphic that reads “more of this is true than you might believe.” Let’s just say that my cynic-meter was registering some pretty high numbers despite the disclaimer.

In the hands of someone like the Coen Brothers, this might have been a terrific movie. Unfortunately, first-time director Heslov (Clooney’s long-time production partner) seems to be trying too hard to make this funny and quirky all at once. The quirk far outweighs the funny percentage-wise, never a good thing.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some nice moments here. Some of the scenes in which the would-be Jedi Warriors attempt to use their psychic powers unsuccessfully are nicely done, as is some of the satire, particularly Robert Patrick’s turn as a security contractor. It’s too bad that those moments aren’t more plentiful.

The cast is pretty solid, with Clooney and McGregor doing good, solid jobs in the leads, while Bridges and Spacey are dependable as always. Bridges in particular seems to be channeling his character from The Big Lebowski which isn’t as bad as it sounds since that character was so memorable (I don’t name him because I refuse to – as everyone from AOL and MiniPlanet knows I am the Dude).

There is an awful lot of drug humor here and those who are offended by such things might want to skip on by this one. I haven’t read the book this was based on but based on the subject matter I do think there was a good movie to be had. Sadly, this wasn’t it.

REASONS TO GO: Clooney and McGregor are appealing leads while Bridges and Spacey always do good work. Some genuinely funny scenes stand out here.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too quirky for its own good, the movie tries too hard to be funky and funny. The drug humor may offend some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some brief nudity (some of which is Clooney’s for all you ladies out there), some scenes of violence, a lot of drug use and some rough language. A lot of “somes” equals leave the kids at home for this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes in Kuwait and Iraq were actually filmed in New Mexico.

HOME OR THEATER: Strictly for home viewing. There are lots of movies far worthier than this one in the multiplex right now, so you have plenty of cinematic options.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Star Trek