Any film that combines the talents of George Clooney, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Bridges, features the Small Faces’ “Itchykoo Park” on the sound track, and dares to call itself The Men Who Stare at Goats has to be onto something. And Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats is. It is also, unfortunately, not the great movie I’d hoped for—and cautiously anticipated. Instead, it’s a likable little movie that feels more indie than most indies, isn’t afraid to shamble along, and, sadly, seems oblivious to the fact that it’s in dire need of a bigger ending. The film has a loopy charm that just gets it past the things that don’t quite work.
Just the right tone is set by the opening disclaimer that informs the viewer that what’s about to appear on the screen contains a lot more truth than is likely to be believed. In other words, The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on fact, but it’s anybody’s guess as to where the film takes those facts—and yet it may just be the things that are the most improbable that are true. I like that notion and I buy it. I know, for example, that the U.S. started researching the use of psychic powers for military purposes because the Soviets were doing it. The film adds to this that Soviets were doing it because of bogus reports (that they refused to believe were bogus) that the U.S. was doing it. True? I have no idea, but it’s ridiculous enough to be true and I choose to accept it.
The film tells the story of those experiments in a lopsided manner by framing the story around a reporter, Bob Wilton (McGregor). Wilton is trying to prove himself to his faithless ex-wife by going to Iraq and becoming an important journalist who Makes a Difference. Wilton’s problem is that no one is interested in what he’s attempting. However, a chance meeting with Lyn Cassady (Clooney) jolts his memory about an interview he’d done with a man who’d told him about the special psychic forces, the “New Earth Army.” That meeting—and the fact that Cassady decides that Wilton doodling the force’s symbol in his notebook is a sign—changes everything and sets the tale in motion with the pair of them crossing the border into Iraq on a completely undefined mission that probably isn’t a mission at all.
The film alternates between flashbacks to the original program and the current action. And this is all pretty skillfully accomplished and never bogs down the movie’s forward momentum. In fact, the film is fairly accomplished in its structure, managing to make its various points all dovetail into a single situation of the modern story. The problem with this is that once the movie gets to that point, the payoff is too muted to feel like a payoff. What you end up with is a fun—and sometimes pointedly satirical—ride to nowhere much. Making matters a little thornier is the decision to firmly come down on the side of the paranormal aspects of the story in the very last scene. These fellows should have studied the scene in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1972) where Peter O’Toole maybe causes a coffee table to float 10 feet in space. We don’t actually see it happen, but it’s shot in such a way that it might have happened and the truth is left to you. That’s what this needed, and what it doesn’t have.
In the end, you have a fun, strangely sweet little movie that feels more than a little like a declawed variant on the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading (2008). And that’s OK, but it’s not enough to push the film into the realm of anything greater than a very likable shaggy goat story. Rated R for language, some drug content and brief nudity.