The Men Who Stare at Goats has an ad campaign that made me wary. It professed to be just so wacky, that it seemed primed to disappoint. Thankfully, it doesn’t. It’s not the surprise comedy of the year that Role Models was, but it’s refreshingly different, and very funny. The burden rests mostly on the backs of the actors assembled for the task, but director Grant Heslov- probably best remembered as Fazil, the funny sidekick in True Lies– does a good job with an iconoclastic script.
Ewan McGregor plays Bob, a reporter working in Ann Arbor, Michigan who finds a local eccentric who claims to be a psychic who worked for the Army. The man, Stephen Root, has those crazy eyes we’ve seen Root use, and he drops the names of the most powerful psychic he worked with. Later, when Bob is in Iraq looking for a story on contractors, he recognizes that name: Lyn Cassady, played by George Clooney. Lyn always looks like he’s a deer in the headlights, or perhaps a rat in a cage. Clooney excels at creating eccentric characters like Ulysses Everett McGill, or his spook from Syriana, and this is perhaps somewhere in between. Lyn is immediately intriguing, infectiously enthusiastic about his psychic powers once he decides he can trust Bob, and they’re off on an adventure across the desert.
So it’s partly a road movie, with Bob reading the New Earth Army manual that Lyn gives him, so we learn the history of Psychic Warfare in the U.S. Army through flashback, with its birth in the training of Bill Django, a super-hippie warrior monk played by Jeff Bridges. It’s easy to write this performance off as The Dude, but it’s much different except for the easygoing acceptance of new age oddities. When Bill and Lyn click during an early, unconventional training session involving the hippy hippy shake, it’s perfect. The whole premise is unbelievable now, but in the madness of the Cold War, which gave us Mutual Assured Destruction and other insanities well satirized in Dr. Strangelove, we think it just might have happened. The movie is a fictionalized account, but the opening notation of “You’d be
amazed at how much of this is true.”
In structure, it reminds me of Thank You for Smoking, which melded the ridiculous and the morbid, and this is a fun war movie set in Iraq, something I never expected. It has a sort of Three Kings vibe in that way, a “Catch-22” view of the military and keeps a magnificently consistent tone. The villain of the story is Kevin Spacey’s Larry Hooper, an L. Rob Hubbard science fiction writer dabbling with the occult, who becomes intrigued with the team, joins it, and becomes its undoing. This is one of Spacey’s best roles of recent, a skin he fills naturally. Compared to his Lex Luthor, this is masterful and perfectly played. Ewan McGregor is the outsider and does a good job, despite his American accent sounding a lot like he had the same voice coach as Eddie Izzard for his role in “The Riches.” He may have been chosen so we can chuckle every time the psychics call themselves “Jedi,” but he manages to hold his own with the big boys who get the crazy roles.
Do they stare at goats? Yes. They also take some digs at Halliburton, Blackwater, torture, and the media. It’s enjoyable viewing, and doesn’t belabor you about the head with messages. Unlike the idiocy of Buffalo Soldiers, this embraces the mad bureaucracy of the military and its excesses, and makes good fun of it. It introduces us to unbelievable characters that we enjoy the company of, and despite a little shakiness in the third act it’s never boring, eye-rolling or inconsistent. I give it great credit for maintaining its wild tone of ’60s idealism throughout, without getting sappy.
3.5 out of 5 goat scrotes