The Men Who Stare at Goats
Running time 93 minutes
Written by Peter Straughan
Directed by Grant Heslov
Starring George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges
The Men Who Stare at Goats, the latest George Clooney fiasco, is like getting stung by a wasp on the inside of your eyelid. You are blinded to all reason and the agony lasts for days. Despite Mr. Clooney’s easygoing charm and obvious good looks, his film choices point to an appalling lack of both intelligence and taste. He just doesn’t seem interested in narrative movies that make sense, and even worse, he has an exasperating tendency to turn his projects over to buddies and basketball cronies, whether or not they have any talent. (In George Clooney movies, talent is optional.) The result is a depressingly high track record of incomprehensible bores like Solaris, Syriana, Michael Clayton, the dumb, overplotted Ocean’s flicks by the overrated Steven Soderbergh … the list is long. In fact, the marvelous and insightful Good Night, and Good Luck is the only major exception in a career notable for frat-house one-liners and photo op mugging over artistic quality. At the press conference for The Men Who Stare at Goats in Toronto, when asked what drew him to a movie this bad, he deadpanned, “I’ve known Grant Heslov [the director] since 1992, and he has some compromising photos of me, so I really had no choice.”
It’s hard to believe this is the same Mr. Heslov who helped write Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow and the McCarthy witch hunts. He may be Clooney’s longtime filmmaking partner, but he is certainly no director, and this wobbly, one-legged directorial debut proves it. It’s supposed to be a takeoff on Dr. Strangelove, with all of the slobbering, winking, brain-dead overacting on display in the abominable Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?; it pastes together disconnected stories from a book by Jon Ronson about the U.S. Army’s use of parapsychological research in Iraq. Ewan McGregor, who shows up in what feels like at least half of the movies released today (and seems to get worse in each one), plays a down-and-out reporter from Michigan who travels to Fort Bragg in 1983 to interview a top-secret brigade of psychic and paranormal soldiers trained in New Age warfare. The result is surreal and patently absurd as he tags along to Kuwait as a war correspondent with a gang of illogical military muttonheads trained to make themselves invisible and impersonate Jedi warriors in Star Wars epics, run through walls and kill goats by staring them to death. Dedicated to ending the “war on terror” without violence, these “warrior monks” hike across the Iraq desert in search of the founder of the “First Earth Battalion”—a pony-tailed acid head freak named Django (Jeff Bridges, re-creating his performance as the Dude in The Big Lebowski). As part of their combat training, he encourages his foot soldiers to stop shaving, grow long hair, wear Jedi robes and dance—a natural for Mr. Clooney, who is in civilian life a dance instructor. They spout nonsense about steroids and solar cooking on sand dunes and perform sadistic experiments on animals, and their nemesis is new recruit Kevin Spacey, whose special talent is spoon bending. They’re all crazy and none of their theories work, and neither does the movie.
The structure is nothing more than a series of anything-goes contrivances. It is never clear what the goal is (the reporter narrates: “I was on a mission—even I didn’t know what the mission was”), although when recruited to find the hideout of General Noriega, the Jedis say, “Ask Angela Lansbury.” Paranoid and nutty as an Almond Joy, Bridges uses pension fund money to hire hookers and, inspired by the discovery that the Russians are torturing kittens in the name of psychic warfare, uses Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s “I Love You” song as a torture technique of his own. When he finally gets a dishonorable discharge, you wonder why it took the Pentagon so long. Using his Jedi powers for evil instead of peace, Mr. Clooney comes unhinged and has Jonathan Demme–homage nightmares called “the silence of the goats.”
It’s episodic and broadly incoherent; the direction is all over the map; and the acting is so atrocious it wouldn’t get past a Saturday Night Live dress rehearsal. There’s a big difference between comic acting and just plain goofing around, but nobody in this movie seems to know it. Mr. Clooney knocks himself out making fun-house faces, but shows no real talent for political satire. (Didn’t the people who financed this trash remember him in Three Kings?) The script by Peter Straughan is demented jabberwocky that just makes you groan. Example: The Jedi motto is “I will drink your blue water, live in your red clay and eat your green skin.” Huh? Say what? This cinematic Katrina is only 93 minutes long but seems like 93 days of hard labor.
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