One of the quirkiest movies I’ve seen in years, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a bizarre comedy that pushes the limits of my suspension of disbelief, but ultimately left me laughing and feeling oddly satisfied.
Based on the book by Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare at Goats features Ewan McGregor as a reporter who flees his divorce by trying to become an embedded reporter in the Iraq war. While there, he runs across Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a man who he has been told was involved in a secret Army project in the 80s to develop soldiers with psychic powers. As we watch, two stories unfold simultaneously — the tale of the original “New Earth Army,” and the tale of Cassady and McGregor‘s Bob Wilton as they race across Iraq on a mission that Cassady is remaining disturbingly tight-lipped about.
For a movie about the army set in 2003 Iraq, it’s refreshingly apolitical. Director Grant Heslov isn’t trying to beat any agenda into the audience’s heads, and the story is far more amusing than it is chilling or thought-provoking, even if it does seem a bit goofy. Ronson‘s book, which I have not read, is about a supposed real-life military arm that tried experiments to develop paranormal abilities such as psychic location, telepathy, emotion control, and other such talents that could have practical purposes. While I have no trouble believing that the army would attempt such experiments, the plot here goes far outside of the realm of belief, regardless of what the opening lines of the film proclaim. The program itself isn’t really treated as a joke, just the reactions and character of several of the people involved.
The cast is good. Clooney handles his role with an appropriate gravity, and Kevin Spacey is wonderful as the failed writer whose participation in the program is far more selfish than that of his comrades. Jeff Bridges is almost channeling The Dude as he plays the reborn hippie that develops the project, and he drives most of the flashback sequences.
McGregor is a good actor, and very good in this part, but I almost think that casting him was a mistake. The participants in the project name themselves after characters from a popular movie series of the time — they’re called “The Jedi.” Which is appropriate enough, but when you have McGregor asking what a Jedi is, how people become a Jedi, what a Jedi’s powers are and so forth, it does pull you out of the movie. Virtually every time the word “Jedi” or another other Star Wars reference was made with him on the screen, half the audience began tittering with amusement. It’s funny enough the first few times, but soon I found it becoming distracting. There’s even a reference to the “Dark Side” at a rather serious moment that I couldn’t help but giggle at. McGregor did a fine job, but I wonder if it may not have served the story better if the character who was trying to uncover the secret of the Jedi wasn’t the guy who played Obi-Wan Kenobi.
I liked this movie. It wasn’t a knockout punch, but it was funny enough and I felt like I got my money’s worth.