At this point in the post-modern, cynical dicta, nothing really surprises us about the military. From defense contracts which result in kick-back rich toilet seats to useless wars which tend to foster the power in the purveyors, not the people, a structured citizen soldiery is an unhealthy combination of jingoism and bumbling bureaucracy - and no place is this more obvious than in Grant Heslov’s proposed satire The Men Who Stare at Goats. Based on the “mostly” true tome by UK journalist Jon Ronson, we are told that throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, America was developing a kind of “super warrior”, one that would use a priority of peace (and a well-honed psychic ability) to resolve conflicts. But instead of resonating with the kind of comedy we expect from such oddball ideas, Heslov mismanages his narrative, bringing in ancillary elements that derail his attempts at insight.
When we first meet struggling American reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), his wife has just left him and he feels his career going nowhere. So he decides to become a war correspondent, heading to Iraq to cover the country post-“Mission Accomplished”. Stuck in Kuwait and desperate for a way in, he runs into the mysterious Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who turns out to be a deactivated black ops agent whose recently returned to the game, on a mission deep in the heart of enemy territory.
Turns out, he was once part of a top secret experiment known as Project Jedi, the brainchild of forward-thinking officer Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who employs New Age philosophies and counterculture ideas to find a way to make enlisted men as lethal in peace as they are in war. Unfortunately, a failed sci-fi writer named Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) becomes part of the company. Jealous of Lyn’s abilities, including the power to stop a goat’s heart with his mind, the angry author decides to undermine the project - an effort that continues to this very day.
Neither as quirky as it thinks it is nor as witty as it wants to be, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a low grade military send-up. There are moments when Ronson’s true “tall tale” sizzles with a kind of silly authenticity, a jaw-dropping reality that makes Americans wonder just what their men in uniform are up to. Every time the story travels back to the moment when Django and company create their re-imagined model, the movie soars. It provides a clever combination of nostalgia and insanity, Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” chugging along in the background while a long-haired Clooney shakes his booty magnificently. Whenever Bridges is onscreen, Goats gives over to his Dude-induced bliss, and everything is better for it. Along with our updated Gable, he brings a lot of hilarious heart to the material.
McGregor, sadly, has the exact opposite effect. Stuck in a one-note joke of a role (the big gag? He doesn’t understand the concept of a “Jedi”…think about for a moment…), he is a sad sack as a plot device, a means of getting us to the updated Cassady, the story behind the entire psychic project, and the last act reveal about what has happened to the concept since. He adds nothing to the narrative, and in fact draws our attention away from entertainment possibilities with his incessant whining and fake-accented antics. It seems odd that a British actor would be hired to play an American reporter (especially when Ronson himself was from Wales), but one imagines some studio interference in the decision. And let’s not even discuss a dull-eyed Spacey doing ‘villain’ in his sleep. As two facets of the failed modern material, they both sink Goat‘s chances of succeeding.
In fact, both the past and present in this particular movie offers limited entertainment value. Heslov, taking the reigns of a major feature film for the first time, clearly needs a few more turns behind the lens before tackling material this complex. It’s not just a question of comic timing or overall tone. As a director, he truly doesn’t understand where the best bits lie. Whenever the flashbacks fill the screen, Bridges et. al. doing their best bemused hippy shtick, we are immediately whisked away to a more innocent - and enjoyable - era. The jokes flow and the sight gags click. But then, just as we are getting into the groove, Heslov brings back the War in Iraq road movie and things simply die. No matter their level of talent, Clooney and McGregor are an unsuccessful Hope and Crosby.
But more importantly, Goats really has no point. The script doesn’t find a fresh way of dealing with military incompetence or the often surreal situations surrounding same. In fact, the most telling attempt comes at the expense of excellent actor Stephen Lang, who definitely gets the deranged Dr. Strangelove nuttiness involved. Yet beyond one or two brief moments of comedic clarity, Goats doesn’t “get” it. Instead, it throws random scenes at the audience and hopes that they make the necessary critical connections. With Bridges, such cinematic heavy lifting is easy. Everyone else, however, only increases the burden. While Heslov should get most of the blame, the script by Peter Straughan doesn’t help. After all, this is the man responsible for disemboweling Toby Young’s bitter magazine publishing rant How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, turning it into a tired media spoof.
Somewhere buried in all the screwball struggles and inconsistent time shifts is a potent film about outsized ideas and the perversion of same. When Bridges is explaining his notion of an “Earth First” army, we easily recognize his goal. Too bad few in the film follow in his footsteps. As another example of Clooney’s patented “mainstream/iconoclastic” back and forth, career wise, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a likeable failure. There may not be enough here to completely satisfy, given the inconsistency behind the scenes, but at the very least there are individual sequences that illustrate what this wacky military farce could have been. We expect a little lunacy from those invested with keeping out country safe. Unfortunately, the bumpy approach to this particular “true” story thwarts its intentions.