With an attention grabbing name like “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the latest George Clooney-produced film has an advantage over the competition: Your interest is piqued, you want to know more. Thankfully, the film, an offbeat military comedy, earns the interest its name garners.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is based on a true story, a tag that always has to be taken with a grain of salt. Hollywood is known to take a kernel of truth and blow it up into a big, puffy piece of popcorn. In this case, that truth may be harder swallow.
The film reveals that in the early 1980s, the United State military did research in psychic warfare in an attempt to create soldiers with super powers. That much is true. Whether you believe that people could do the things the film suggests is another matter entirely. The title comes from the alleged death, through the power of thought, of a goat.
The audience's point of entry into this world is Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a journalist in Kuwait who meets Lyn Cassidy (Clooney), a recently re-activated self-proclaimed "Jedi warrior.” There is a lot of dialogue centered around what it means to be a real Jedi warrior, and the casting of McGregor, who was Obi-Won in the “Star Wars” prequels, becomes a joke in itself.
Bob joins Lyn on a road trip of sorts into Iraq circa 2002. Along the way we get flashbacks of how his bizarre program came to be. Jeff Bridges recalling The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” features heavily in these scenes as a hippie general who sold the military on the New Age soldier.
Kevin Spacey also makes an appearance about midway into the film as a slimy would be “warrior monk” who sabotages the program.
Directed by Grant Heslov, a frequent collaborator with Clooney making his directorial debut, the film keeps a light tone. Even while in Iraq there's no real sense of danger. The humor is often broad, but remains smart. Heslov does a nice job of balancing a tone that allows for the material's silliness to shine, but not run amok.
The script by Peter Straughan (“How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”) from Jon Ronson's book is populated with an abundance of laugh-out-loud one-liners and sight gags. Yet Straughan does allow a few moments of poignancy, as in a conversation between Lyn and an Iraqi in which both apologize for the worst of their nationalities.
Everyone plays the film straight. Yes, the actors say and do absurd things, but Clooney, Bridges and Spacey wisely play it with a conviction that let's you know their characters truly believe everything they say and do. That makes all the difference in making this material work.
Clooney, at this point a master of his charm and persona, is consistently funny in delivering his New Age monologues. Bridges does what he does and the day it is no longer funny will be a sad day indeed. That day has not yet come. Spacey seems somewhat wasted for large parts of his screen time, but gets to show off his patented snarky line in the final third.
McGregor, stuck in a straight-man role, could be easy to dismiss as “just an empty shirt” as A.O. Scott of the New York Times put it, but he’s giving a shrewd, low-key comedic performance. McGregor’s transition from skeptic to a believer who willingly participates in the “Jedi” lifestyle reminds that he has always had a fresh, offbeat approach that hasn’t always been properly utilized by Hollywood.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” just sort of wanders about until reaching a finale that is somewhat anti-climatic, but the film has a goofy charm and remains funny from beginning to end. Days later I'm still chuckling.