Army Buffoonery Fells Goats, Churns Cheese

The Men Who Stare at Goats
Starring George Clooney, Ewan Mcgregor & Kevin Spacey
Directed by Grant Heslov
Rated R
2 stars

Caught in the middle of a long, deadly competition with the Soviets, the U.S. Army turned to the only logical solution: psychic warfare. And yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like.

Based on a nonfiction book by British journalist Jon Ronson, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” plays out the bizarre account — from conception to destruction to LSD-laden resurrection — of an army unit that specialized in paranormal combat. Equipped with an inherently magnetic plot and star-studded cast, director Grant Heslov had his hands on a filmmaking gold mine. But with a one-dimensional script and nonexistent character development, not even hot psychic soldiers can nudge the film to fulfilling its justifiably high expectations.

The bizarre tale of the New Earth Army — the U.S. military’s paranormal warfare unit — is unwound by Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a dejected reporter from Ann Arbor who, at the start of the film, is crushed when his wife leaves him for his editor. Lacking purpose in his life, Wilton ships out to Iraq to cover the war, but gets stuck in Kuwait. There, he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a washed-up ex-Jedi Master (aka psychic soldier) who claims to be on a secret mission for the U.S. Army.

The two characters venture into Iraq together, and Wilton soon finds that Cassady’s “secret mission” is really a quest for redemption for — you guessed it — staring at a goat and killing it. After a series of ridiculous misfortunes, including being kidnapped by a group of militant Iraqis, Cassady finds himself back alongside mentor and New Earth Army founder Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) and old nemesis Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) with an opportunity to clear his conscience.

Clooney shines in his ingenious depiction of the uber-confident Cassady, who remains firmly convinced of his supernatural powers through most of the movie. His belief is only partly justified — Cassady successfully breaks apart clouds in the sky with his mind while failing to foresee a giant rock in the road, which he subsequently crashes into. The film lives and dies by Cassady, thriving at the character’s high points and diving headfirst into a bucket of cheesiness when he finds himself in a pool of self-doubt. Wilton might as well be another audience member — McGregor’s reactions to Cassady’s antics almost precisely mirror the faces of everyone in the theatre — making his character unnecessary and bland. To be fair, McGregor didn’t have much to work with script-wise; the reporter’s back-story is razor thin — possibly because he is the only completely fictionalized main character — and Wilton is used exclusively as a vehicle to get Cassady’s story out.

Packed with A-list male actors, “Goats” surprisingly avoids entering the realm of romance entirely. However, instead of proving a refreshing change to the norm, the lack of female characters further exposes the film’s distinct complexity deficit. Not even a hilarious, goat-killing psychic Clooney can distract from the fact that there are no other facets of the plot to focus on.

Even with a bare storyline, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” consistently keeps you laughing out loud at the interactions between Cassady, Wilton and Django, never taking itself too seriously. Instead of wasting time on Wilton’s internal debate about the trueness of Cassady’s paranormal abilities, the film leaves the analyzing up to the audience, creating more space for Clooney’s shenanigans. And of course, more screen time for the goats.