(by Dustin Putman
Inspired by the book by Jon Ronson, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is a loopy, fact-scattered comedy close to woeful in its failure at producing laughs and some much-needed levity. Out-there elements barrage the viewer so relentlessly that you eventually feel like throwing them back in the faces of actor-turned-director Grant Heslov, screenwriter Peter Straughan (2008's "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People"), and an ensemble of great performers left stranded by listless material. If there is some big, meaningful point to the film, it is lost in a landmine of slapstick and mugging. All that one really takes away from it is that (1) there are a lot of crazy people hidden away in the military who are one beverage away from drinking the Kool-Aid; (2) popular media is into sound bites over the bigger picture; and (3) Boston is a really cool rock band from the 1970s and '80s. Article continues below
When his wife (Rebecca Mader) admits to an affair and his marriage ends, it is the catalyst for Ann Arbor Daily Telegram journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) to do something with his life other than sit behind a desk all day. He books it to Kuwait City, where, by chance, he runs into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), the "skipper" of a paranormal military unit known as The New Earth Army. Trained to adopt superpowers two decades earlier by its founder, Vietnam Vet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), Lyn is a psychic who, legend has it, once killed a goat with his mind. Bob joins forces with him as they head for Iraq on a mystery mission—one that gets sidetracked after they are captured by and escape from gun-packing local militia, and later find themselves in the hands of the PSIC, a psych corps run by pessimistic former comrade Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey).
"The Men Who Stare at Goats" liberally mixes fiction with teaspoons of truth, turning the post-9/11 climate into a freakshow charade where no one has a moment to take themselves seriously. So concerned about being quirky that it turns into a virtual romp with aliens who just so happen to look like human beings, the film wears the viewer down as he or she struggles to connect with what is happening on the screen. The importance of being a Jedi figures in as a major plot point, while the entire New Earth operation reminds of a brainwashing cult. This is perhaps not by accident—there is, after all, a scene where everyone at the base gets high from drinking water laced with LSD—but it also sets off a warning signal that Bill, Lyn, Larry, and the rest of the guys are off their rockers. Meanwhile, as the one character who is seeing things from the outside looking in, Bob Wilton walks through his contrived experiences without a point-of-view or much of a personality. He's a ragdoll, being pulled this way and that; he goes along with it, writes a story about it by the end, but doesn't truly come into his own or express how he feels about what he has gone through. The final moments do suggest, however, that Bob has crossed to the other side, living in a fantasy world where walking through walls is a possibility.
As reporter Bob Wilton, Ewan McGregor (2009's "Amelia") gets to play the only person who still has at least one foot planted on planet earth. The film opens well as a character study of a man not satisfied with where his life has taken him and torn apart by the collapse of his marriage. There is even an amusing opening scene where Bob interviews Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), an allegedly psychic-powered mama's boy who first turns Bob onto who Lyn Cassady is. Once Bob sets off for the Middle East, the picture becomes less about his journey and more about the exploits of the unhinged crackpots he meets. Were there some snap or vigor to any of it, that would be a plus, but only the music choices (e.g., "More Than a Feeling" by Boston, "Dancing with Myself" by Billy Idol, "Alright" by Supergrass) prvide cursory pleasure. Likewise, if all the silliness was intended to lead to any ultimate existential insights, they, too, are lost within a hodgepodge of ceaseless inconsequentiality.
Watching George Clooney (whose 2008 Coen Brothers comedy "Burn After Reading" actually was a successful comedy about nothing), Jeff Bridges (2008's "Iron Man") and Kevin Spacey (2008's "21") acting flighty in "The Men Who Stare at Goats," it becomes clear that there will be no scenes from this film showing up years from now on their lifetime achievement clip reels. Simply put, they don't have any here to be proud of. The script as it has ended up is pretty useless and can provide no more than a snicker or two. When the movie is over, you scratch your head, ponder the ways what you have just watched went wrong, and then move on.