The Men Who Stare at Goats Directed by Grant HeslovStarring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin SpaceyRated R*5.5*Goes well with: Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Wag the Dog, Three Kings
Ewan McGregor just can't get away from the Jedi. After going along with the desecration of millions of Star Wars fans' childhood memories, he's gone back to the well. Yes, even though the surface of the marketing campaign for The Men Who Stare at Goats has nothing to do with Star Wars, this dark comedy about a secret psychic army project is all about using The Force.
McGregor is Bob Wilton, a small-time journalist who skips off to Iraq during the early days of the war after his wife leaves him. It's in a hotel bar in Kuwait that he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a retired Army man who recounts his history as the two of them drift across the border, where they're subsequently kidnapped by bandits. You see, back in the 1980s, Cassady was recruited by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) to be a part of Project Jedi, a secret Army psychic program that grew out of Django's research into the hippie movement. The New Earth Army and its Warrior Monks were poised to change the world, at least until bad psychic apple Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) joined the unit.
Twenty years later, Django has gone missing, the other members of Project Jedi are scattered, Cassady has gone to Iraq and Wilton has followed him, wondering more and more as they go along if the guy who's telling him that he's a psychic who participated in secret Army experiments involving killing goats with his mind is, perhaps, the wrong guy to be following into the desert.
The Men Who Stare at Goats, based on the book by Joe Ronson, is a terrific idea for a movie. And it's got a tremendous cast, which also includes Stephen Lang, a guy whose time seems to have finally come, in a very little role. And it's all anchored by a superb performance from Clooney as a charming, endearing kook. But it's a film that's absolutely stunted by its script, which can't turn this terrific idea into a terrific film. First of all, McGregor's character is, for the most part, a framing device, a foil to express and explore Cassady's story. By the end, screenwriter Peter Straughan uses an interesting contrivance to convince us that, actually, the opposite is true, but by the time you get there, the movie has become so muddled that it just doesn't make sense. Also, Spacey's character, selfish and motivated by greed and hubris, just feels unreal and out-of-place, even in a movie that bills itself as a comedy.
Eventually, of course, Cassady, Django and Hooper must all cross paths again. The entire movie leads you up to it, like a psychic vision. But the eventual congregation, confrontation and climax come about in a way that is unsatisfying and confusing. Once everyone is in the same place at the same time, the film flies off the tracks, losing sight of not just its characters, but also its point. When all is done, it's hard to sort out not just what director Grant Heslov was trying to accomplish, but also why the script didn't undergo a rewrite or three before the film was green-lighted. It's not enough to have a great idea, it's not enough to have a great cast, and it's not enough to have a great performance from Clooney if the rest of the movie eventually just limps along to a lame ending.
It feels as though the Goats director and screenwriter knew where they were starting and where they were going but then got misdirected along the way and found themselves lost in a plot desert, not unlike Cassady and Wilton. That's fine if you're a crackpot dreamer claiming to have psychic powers. But not so much when you're making a movie. You may not know exactly what you're doing, but like effective late-night psychic infomercials, you need to at least look as though you do.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.