A title card at the beginning of "The Men Who Stare at Goats" announces, "More of this is true than you would believe." Less of it is entertaining than you would wish.
The lightweight satire, based on a nonfiction book by British journalist Jon Ronson, is a sort of New Age "Catch-22." It recounts a period in the 1980s when senior officials in the U.S. military, the intelligence services and Washington began to believe bizarre things. The United States' next wars would be fought with psychic powers, levitating soldiers and spies who observed distant enemies by closing their eyes, concentrating and waiting for the visions to come. In top-secret experiments, soldiers tried to kill goats by glaring at them. True facts.
With a premise this rich -- occult hoo-ha as an allegory for the insanity of war -- and a cast including George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor, how could the film go wrong? Dozens of ways, actually, and it stumbles flat-footed across every single one. Episodic structure, slack tempo, a clutter of characters and shaggy-dog subplots, uneven acting and listless direction. I'd rather stare at a goat for 93 minutes.
The film's point of view shifts unsteadily among narrators and time zones, but the main focus follows McGregor's Bob Wilton, a small-town newspaperman who writes oddball human-interest stories. One of his assignments involves a local vet who tells "Twilight Zone" tales about a classified Army corps of "psychic warriors." Rebounding from a failed marriage, Bob heads off to cover the early days of the second Iraq war, where he encounters Lyn Cassady (Clooney), who was named by Bob's eccentric source as one of the Army's clairvoyant recruits.
Lyn admits to Bob that his unit was called the "Jedi masters." "What's a Jedi master?" McGregor's character asks, an Obi-Wan Kenobi meta-joke that the humor-strapped script recycles a dozen times.
As Lyn and Bob infiltrate Iraq on a vague secret mission, Lyn demonstrates superpowers such as "cloud bursting," gazing at thunderheads until they dissipate and taking credit for it. He's less skilled at evading kidnappers or keeping his car on the road. (This is the only film I've seen that uses an Improvised Explosive Device for a sight gag.)
As they wander the desert, the film drifts through its story. Flashbacks introduce us to eccentric officer Bill Django (Bridges in blissful "Big Lebowski" hippie mode), who founded the bloodless psychic warfare initiative after experiencing an epiphany (or shell shock) in Vietnam. We meet the tale's villain, nefarious Larry Hooper (Spacey), who wants to turn Django's blissed-out, long-haired mind commandos to his own evil purposes. Spacey's bad guy is so delighted with his own wickedness that you can't help being tickled, too.
The film comes apart in the final stretch with hokey redemptions and resolutions in place of real closure. The yarn unravels without ever identifying its satirical targets. Is it a lampoon of peace-and-love mysticism? A critique of militant war-for-profit privateers? Ultimately, it's a shapeless wad of goat cheese.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186