Grant Heslov’s “The Men Who Stare at Goats” opens with a patronizing title card that, in retrospect, sounds more like a plea: “More of this is true than you believe,” we’re told, as though excusing the subsequent incredulousness on the grounds of its nonfictional content. That’s not a good sign for a movie about psychic soldiers. Rather than play up the bizarre nature of the plot or turn it into military satire, Heslov tries to find the sincerity of the narrative, resulting in a bland comedy about as credible as the loony characters within it.
Taking cues from Guardian columnist Jon Ronson’s 2005 book of the same name, Heslov assembles a wannabe quirky story featuring reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who learns about the army’s thirty-year attempt to harness paranormal abilities. While seeking a big scoop in Kuwait, he runs into the maniacal Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), an alumnus of the New Earth Army — basically, a hippy camp for soldiers run by wacky Vietnam vet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, on autopilot, playing the Dude all over again). Feeling like he’s discovered his big break, Wilton follows Cassady on a crazy and undefined mission across the Middle Eastern desert, where the duo get kidnapped and eventually find their way to a reunion with the New Earth Army. The movie applies a constant surge of goofiness, with Clooney and McGregor’s desert exploits aiming for the vibe of a classic Hope and Crosby road trip, but there’s simply not enough genuine chemistry to inject the madness with a much-needed sparkle.
Ostensibly shooting for slapstick humor, Clooney puts on his zaniest performance since “Batman & Robin.” Indeed, he’s intermittently funny, sometimes close to hilarious, in his lively expressions of insanity. Nevertheless, logical gaps in his convictions (he believes, among other things, that he has the power to kill goats with a single morbid glance) ruin the momentum. Wilton never becomes truly skeptical about the paranormal plot, coming across like a pawn of larger forces rather than the trenchant researcher implied by McGregor’s voiceover. Kevin Spacey, as the resident bad guy poised to turn the New Earth Army into a product of corporate emptiness, reads his lines on autopilot.
The story lacks the authenticity needed to make the inherent absurdity come into focus. The Toronto International Film Festival’s listings fallaciously compare “Goats” to “Dr. Strangelove,” which remains an eternal classic because the deranged behavior of its doomed characters never stray too far from a familiar world. By comparison, Heslov’s movie plays like a live action cartoon of its inspiration, making it even further from the truth than the original premise.