On paper, The Men Who Stare at Goats sounds like a winner. As Bill Django, Jeff Bridges revisits his The Big Lebowski Dude persona to play a love-bead draped, bearded, uber-groovy alt-soldier, who believes psychic communication and dancing can win hearts and minds better than guns and bombs. He embarks on an Army program founded on demobilizing the enemy with telepathic thought waves and the preemptive strike of peace and love.
The man who unearths the story of Django’s bizarro post-Vietnam effort is Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor). Wilton is an underachieving newspaper reporter who experiences a life-altering change of tack when his wife leaves him for the paper’s editor. Determined to show his ex that he is no pushover, Wilton heads to Iraq to prove his tough guy street cred. When the other war-hardened reporters snub him, McGregor takes up with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former member of Django’s New Earth Army now masquerading as a contractor, who agrees to take Wilton into Iraq with him. Cassady tells Wilton about the Army’s secret past of training Jedi warriors (the casting of Obi-Wan Kenobi is meant to be an extra smirk of irony in this smirk-fest of a film).
The Men Who Stare at Goats cuts between Wilton and Cassady on their Iraqi misadventures and the efforts of Django, beginning in the Seventies, to bring hippie values to the Army. His long-haired New Earth Army buddies do yoga, dance, dabble in pharmaceuticals, and in Cassady’s case, reveal some untapped paranormal abilities. But Django’s tactics are soon derailed by a power-jockeying bad apple Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), whose jealousy is provoked by Cassady’s telepathic abilities. Hooper becomes the iconic serpent in paradise, who ruins Django and Cassady’s fun and bends their New Age tactics to ill effect in Iraq.
For the most part, it feels like director Grant Heslov (Clooney’s co-screenwriter on Good Night and Good Luck) is a guy still wearing his water wings as he ventures into the deep end of the pool. Heslov is handling a pretty sophisticated genre for his directorial debut, and the film gets away from him pretty quickly and substantially. He appears to have a Dr. Strangelove-style farce in mind, but there’s nothing in the lifeless script or his loosey-goosey direction that suggests he could ever deliver. Like a standup comic whose jokes keep falling flat, things are never quite as funny as screenwriter Peter Straughan may imagine, and tend to involve one-note sight gags of telepathically euthanized goats and hamsters keeling over, or the namby-pamby Wilton’s realization that he’s in way over his head in Iraq. Clooney and McGregor are capable actors, but the lame script doesn’t give them much to sink their teeth into. Especially obnoxious is how the wars in Vietnam and Iraq are treated as goofy set pieces for the film’s hijinks: an absurdist stretch of barren wasteland whose only purpose is as a sight gag for director Heslov.
The film’s most annoying problem may be its lack of a moral center. Even Dr. Strangelove‘s comedy is derived from a degree of disgust at the labyrinthine bureaucracy and ridiculous egos that can allow nuclear holocaust to happen. The film’s willingness to dismiss the New Age mission as hippie bullshit, even as it asks us by film’s end to root for the practitioners of this hippie fighting power is especially outrageous. The Men Who Stare at Goats is so intent on being funny and ironic that it erodes any audience investment in the characters and their plights. We spend so much time laughing at their travails that when the filmmakers let us know it’s time to root for their victory, it’s just too damn late.