Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats had the makings of a good movie. The journalist got hold of an interesting strange-but-true subject: the story of the First Earth Battalion, an Army/CIA initiative that, from the ’60s to the ’80s, explored “psychic warfare.” That is, training soldiers to read minds, walk through walls, and stare at hamsters and goats so long and hard they keeled over dead. I can see a documentary in the coming together of the New Age and the New World Order, or, fictionalized, a sci-fi epic. What we have, instead, is a just-for-the-hell-of-it military satire, so shapeless it just sort of flops around for an hour-and-a-half, oblivious to attention spans and entertainment value.
This is the feature directing debut of Grant Heslov, who, with George Clooney, co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay of Good Night, and Good Luck. Clooney co-stars as Lyn Cassady, whose eyebrow-raising tales of being the army’s prized goat whisperer attract flailing reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor). Wilton, whose life and career are in tatters after his wife dumped him for an editor, wants to be embedded in Iraq, but instead winds up entwined with Cassady, who claims to be a member of the “New Earth Army” that is training “warrior monks” to literally brainstorm America’s enemies. But the program’s founder, uber-hippie Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) has gone missing, and the whole agenda is floundering due to petty grievances between the New Earth Army and a rival camp run by rebel psychic Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who is training his own elite squad. Hooper is wildly envious of Cassady, who is bent on finding his mentor, as Wilton ultimately finds himself.
Clooney, McGregor, Bridges, Spacey, with assists by Stephen Root, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, and a goat or two—it held promise. But the movie stares into its navel, then back at you, vacantly. Other than the amusing recreations of the experiments, there’s little to chew on. The updating to our present state of warfare is only tepidly satirical. It’s no Three Kings II for Clooney. He’s an expert doofus for the Coen brothers, whose current film, A Serious Man, is similarly mystifying—but open to interpretation. It gives you something to puzzle over and try to define. These Men, though, are yoked to a screenplay that’s nothing more than a ragtag collection of throwaway gags and arch mannerisms. Clooney is poker-faced and enigmatic, Bridges is a flower power Duke who’s thrown in with the army, Spacey is snide (which is better than his sentimental side, but not asking much of his abilities), and McGregor merely dull.
The movie is more frivolous than the Ocean’s pictures, which wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t so strenuously empty. Without having to concentrate too hard I predict it will leave you as it left me, at a loss for words. Why was The Men Who Stare at Goats made into this movie? The climax suggests it’s a male empowerment fable, like the film pulled from Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, which indicated that all those people had to go in and out of comas for the socially inept Sacks character to work up enough nerve to ask a woman out on a date. Some smart people have conspired to dumb down a potentially fascinating tale. Read my mind: The Man Who Stare at Goats is a waste of time.
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