"The Men Who Stare at Goats" plays like a collection of scenes without a central thread uniting them. Perhaps worse than the film’s lack of cohesion is its smugness- the movie practically shouts at the audience, "Laugh already! This is really funny!" Unfortunately, more often that not, the movie simply doesn’t deliver.
The film tells the story of the Pentagon’s attempts during the Reagan administration to create an army of psychic soldiers. "The New Earth Army" is founded by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, in full on "Dude" mode), an army officer who searches for alternative means to wage war after being wounded in Vietnam.
After years spent in the counter-culture scene, Django comes back with all kinds of new ways to fight America’s enemies (psychedelics are heavily involved) and with the help of the intensely zealous Brig. Gen. Dean Hopgood (Stephen Lang), gets funding for his unit of "American Jedis."
Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang
Seen at: Loews Boston Common
Ewan McGregor gets his meatiest role in years as Bob Wilton, the journalist looking for a story about the New Earth Army. McGregor drives the film. Unfortunately the character feels completely misconceived. Instead of focusing on Wilton’s journalistic quest for a story, the script is more concerned with his desperate search for meaning in his life. This makes Wilton become an active participant in the craziness he is encounters instead of a lens through which the audience can enter such a bizarre and zany world.
Wilton turns to Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) — a former New Earth Army member who he encounters in Iraq — to act as his source and life coach. Clooney dives into the part with relish. With his mustache, sun-baked skin, and movie star good looks, Clooney resembles an enthusiastic and crazed Clark Gable. He clearly has a ball playing off-type. Clooney’s enthusiasm and pure star power almost make the whole thing work.
By having Wilton embrace Cassady’s crazy lifestyle, the audience is left without a levelheaded perspective with which to counter Cassady’s eccentric ways (The guy thinks he can cause clouds to disappear with his mind).
Maybe a stronger director could have wrangled all of this together and turned it into something that worked. Simply put, Grant Heslov seems completely overwhelmed here on his first feature. Heslov, Clooney’s producing partner, seems to have given the actors free reign to play their characters however they wanted- whether it serves the narrative or not. The comedic beats are poorly timed and Heslov does a tremendously awkward job of integrating the more dramatic scenes throughout the film. The worst thing a comedy can do is make you question whether or not you should be laughing.
Walking out of the theater I couldn’t help but think that "The Men Who Stare at Goats" comes off as a lazy and self-congratulatory film. While it’s clear the actors are having a lot of fun, there seems to be little attempt at engaging the audience. I’m glad they all enjoyed it, because I sure didn’t.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is now in theaters.