THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS may be one of the worst movie titles all year. (Of course “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” is still to come.) It would be nice to say it is a movie that transcends its title. It would, however, not be true.
The film takes as its jumping-off point the notion that the U.S. military conducted experiments to see if extra sensory powers could be isolated among soldiers who could then be trained to use them in war. It’s a funny concept, and for a while the film gets solid laughs from contrasting the straitlaced military types from those who think soldiers can be trained to, say, walk through walls or kill just by the power of thought.
Our entry into this wacky world is Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a reporter whose wife has just left him and now seeks to reclaim his manhood by becoming a war correspondent. He can’t even get into Iraq, and spends his time at a luxury hotel in Kuwait, hoping something will happen. That’s when he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who says he’s a salesman but is actually a veteran of the “psi” operation.
The best part of the film are the flashbacks, as Lyn explains how he was recruited by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), whose search for new training techniques let him to the paranormal, becoming a hippie soldier in the process. The training is decidedly odd, but if Bill is correct, this will change the nature of warfare forever. Into this Edenic training ground comes the snake, with complications ensuing with the arrival of Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who becomes jealous of Lyn’s superior abilities. Soon Larry is conspiring to get rid of Bob and Lyn so he can take over.
It’s at this point that the filmmakers might have stepped back and asked, “Why are we telling this story?” Instead, they plowed on, and the result is a long shaggy dog story that ultimately doesn’t seem to have much of a point. Is this supposed to be about Bob’s redemption? Lyn’s? Bill’s? Is Larry the villain of the piece, or the one person who has his head on straight? Are these psi powers supposed to be frightening, funny, or a sign of things to come?
The filmmakers don’t seem to have a clue, and so the movie just meanders to a close going on long after viewers cease to care about any of it. Only 93 minutes long, it seems much longer. None of the four leads are bad, although they seem to be going over well-trod ground with, perhaps, Clooney adding a touch of mania to his persona. However, all four are sufficiently strong actors that it’s not clear which character is the one with whom we are to identify.
For a movie about people learning to focus their minds, “The Men Who Stare At Goats” proves to be strangely – and disappointingly – unfocused.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.