In “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” George Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, a booze-addled, burned-out Jedi Warrior. No, not a “Star Wars” Force-wielder — Lyn professes to have been an integral member of the U.S. Army’s top secret project to train super soldiers with paranormal psychic abilities in the 1980s.
Director Grant Heslov’s scatter-shot and scatter-brained satire digs into the absurdity of military philosophy. It alternates between smug and tiresome, with multiple stories backtracking through time in a journey that almost too calmly meanders through a group of inadequate men straining to find purpose in their lives.
It moves briskly, and its deadpan humor packs a serviceable laugh, but Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan never figure out exactly what their target is.
The film follows journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who, in the wake of the Iraq invasion in 2003 and the collapse of his marriage, heads abroad to cover the war. Waiting in Kuwait, he crosses paths with Clooney’s Cassady who claims he is a reactivated Jedi Warrior on a secret mission.
The two take off into the Iraq desert with little purpose, encountering a bizarre string of misadventures. Interspersed in this main story is McGregor’s to-the-point voiceover that relates Cassady’s training in the U.S. Army’s First Earth Battalion under the tutelage of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), an officer who believes preaching hippie happiness can unlock his soldiers’ psychic abilities to travel through walls, drive while blindfolded or stop an animal’s heart.
George Clooney holds the film together with an outrageous and subtle comic performance. He plays Cassady’s reckless devotion and paranoia to extremes while holding back bodily animation. He measures his intensity in facial tics, jutting his chin or popping his eyes out in all directions.
In the flashback scenes, Clooney’s slack-jawed awe at his own psychic abilities helps put the film in fuller focus. When Bridges is given the space to parade his ideals in front of his recruits, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” manages to push absurdity in every moment, building and upping its ante scene by scene.
But while these flashback scenes efficiently poke and prod at blind devotions and the silliness of sliding hippie harmony inside military aggression, the scenes of McGregor and Clooney wandering around the Iraq desert are like interludes and sketches that add little to the overall commentary.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is lightweight and breezy, but it doesn’t have the guts to poke deep enough. It doesn’t know whether we should laugh at Lyn Cassady or understand his plight of psychic rediscovery.
Nor is it cynical or deadpan enough to push its satirical edge to a cutting level. All the jokes seem dulled in its third act, when all the elements try rather unsuccessfully to converge.
There are lots of great ideas in “The Men Who Stare at Goats” about confusion, inadequacy, the need to find meaning and how war offers us both problems and solutions.
It amuses, but it never gets us to think about the implications of training psychic super soldiers. The film hits ambivalence about nearly every one of its subjects.
Its deadpan humor and the absurd clowning of George Clooney and Jeff Bridges make it an easily digestible farce that doesn’t get too bogged down in trying to create a message.
But in the absence of a direct point for its commentary, the film’s major moments all feel too tangential and underdeveloped. Its tip lacks poison, and its tone never seeps into the caustic singe that could have pushed it higher.