By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009
Few cinematic pleasures are as sublime as George Clooney in full Clark Gable mode, as he is for much of the comedy "The Men Who Stare at Goats." His hair cropped to a metal-filings brush cut, with a full mustache to match, he cuts a figure similar to Gable when he was beginning to thicken and age so appealingly, his eyes a bit worn, but still aglint with mischief and magnetism.
Clooney's gaze is aglint, too, except his character, Lyn Cassady, calls it "sparkly eyes," a technique that's part of his arsenal as one of a few groovy men trained by the U.S. Army to perfect their paranormal powers and develop a nonlethal form of warfare.
"More of this is true than you would believe," reads an epigraph as "The Men Who Stare at Goats" opens. And for much of this genial if frustratingly shallow movie, viewers will no doubt be preoccupied by trying to figure out where real-life wackiness ends and artistic license begins.
Based on journalist Jon Ronson's nonfiction book of the same name, the movie chronicles a 1970s military program in which an idealistic New Age-inspired officer trained a group of "warrior monks" in honing their transcendental skills to Jedi perfection; one of their exercises, as the title indicates, was to stare at a goat until it keeled over, kaput.
Funny stuff. And director Grant Heslov -- who wrote Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck," and who makes a promising directorial debut here -- mines the material for its most antic outlandishness. After a windy, characteristically twisty preamble in which the film's protagonist, journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), explains how he came to meet Cassady, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" becomes a bent, hallucinogenic road picture, as Wilton "embeds" with Cassady -- by now a private contractor -- on a mysterious mission in Iraq.
On their desert travels, Cassady regales Wilton with stories of the New Earth Army, a secret outfit run by Vietnam veteran Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who after surviving guerrilla sniper fire came home convinced that American forces would win only through advanced psychic powers and excellent vibes, greeting enemies with "indigenous music and words of peace" and laying lambs at their feet.
There's no denying the seductive power of this what-might-have-been scenario, and Bridges -- as a character based on the real-life Lt. Col. Jim Channon, who really did try to develop a squad called the First Earth Battalion -- sells it with disarmingly sincere brio. Like The Dude (in "The Big Lebowski") in fatigues, with his hair gathered in a shamanic braid down his back, Bridges delivers by far the most engaging, heartfelt performance in "The Men Who Stare at Goats," which features capable but unmemorable turns by McGregor and Kevin Spacey (as the oily villain of the piece).
As for Clooney: His reliably suave and self-deprecating screen presence notwithstanding, he seems oddly miscast here. The overwhelming force of his star power swamps a role that might have been better served by asymmetrical quirk.
Then again, maybe only an actor of Clooney's wattage could keep viewers interested in Cassady's yarns, which toggle between present-day monologues and jumpy flashbacks with discombobulating frequency, a fractured time signature that only adds to the movie's growing sense of aimlessness. When Wilton at one point admits he has no idea what mission he and Cassady are on, viewers are likely to know just how he feels.
Even at its most digressive, Heslov keeps "The Men Who Stare at Goats" moving at an affable, amiable pace; it's a smart, amusing picaresque that taps into the gonzo energy and toughness of Hunter S. Thompson and Stanley Kubrick, while never achieving their ferocity and fire. (It exemplifies a genre that might be called the Boomer Conspiracy Comedy, the good-natured flip side to Oliver Stone's darker visions, but animated by the same strains of nostalgia and paranoia.)
But for all its out-there goofiness, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" also retains a cool ironic distance, and in this it recalls a more recent movie: "The Informant!," by frequent Clooney collaborator Steven Soderbergh. The sense of emotional detachment keeps things feeling smooth and low-key, but, as is clear in the film's last few scenes, the playful tone shades into the simply trivial, which in the setting doesn't quite play. "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is content to be sparkly when it should be sharp-edged and shrewd; it has the potential to roar like a lion, but instead it lays lambs at our feet.
The Men Who Stare at Goats -- (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, some drug content and brief nudity.