“More of this is true than you would believe,” warns a title card at the start of The Men Who Stare at Goats, although the ever-reliable “I know this sounds crazy, but . . .” would have worked just as well.
Based on the nonfiction book by Jon Ronson, whose website describes him as a journalist and a humorist, the movie claims that the U.S. military developed a secret cadre in the 1980s code-named “Jedi warriors” (Ronald Reagan sure loved Star Wars). The soldiers were trained to hone their psychic and paranormal skills in order to read minds, walk through walls and turn invisible when caught in a tight squeeze.
“We will be the first superpower to develop superpowers!” exclaims Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), the lieutenant in charge of this “New Earth Army.” Django is a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in battle, returned home, disappeared for six years into the New Age demimonde — lots of nudist beaches, communal hot tubs and LSD parties — and emerged convinced that peace and love, not violence, were the key to winning wars.
Directed by Grant Heslov and written by Peter Straughan, The Men Who Stare at Goats uses flashbacks to chart the creation of Django’s super soldiers, whose idea of boot camp includes dancing to Billy Idol, walking on hot coals, driving through obstacle courses while blindfolded and lots and lots of yoga.
The film’s main story is set in 2003 Iraq, where Ann Arbor newspaper reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) has come to report on the war. Bob meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who was once Django’s star pupil and who still believes he possesses Jedi powers, such as the ability to stop goats’ hearts with a gaze or the fearsome “sparkly eyes” technique, which, in one of the film’s most amusing moments, Lyn demonstrates to Bob.
Much of The Men Who Stare at Goats is indeed amusing, although mostly in a mild, setting-the-stage kind of way, and your smiles eventually turn to yawns. Once the movie has established its roster of looney characters (including Kevin Spacey as a dark Jedi who is jealous of everyone else’s powers), the script doesn’t give them anything to do. Pretty much nothing happens in Iraq: Everything’s just one gag after another, and a shot of Lyn and Bob wandering the desert reminds you of those old Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road pictures (or perhaps a more sophisticated version of a Chris Farley-David Spade comedy). Except even they eventually got somewhere.
McGregor clearly relishes the opportunity to act in a real movie after a post-Star Wars string of duds, although his casting here feels primarily like a stunt to help all the Jedi jokes pay off more. Clooney is better — no one can say this superstar is not willing to make fun of himself — and Bridges deftly channels his shaggy Big Lebowski persona. But to what end? The Men Who Stare at Goats is a premise in wait for a movie — the pilot episode for a TV series that got canceled before it got cooking.
Cast: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick.
Director: Grant Heslov.
Screenwriter: Pater Straughan. Based on the book by Jon Ronson.
Producers: Paul Lister, George Clooney, Grant Heslov.
An Overture Films release. Running time: 95 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, brief nudity, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.