George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, and Jeff Bridges in The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)


(director: Grant Heslov; screenwriters: from the book by Jon Ronson/Peter Straughan; cinematographer: Robert Elswit; editor: Tatiana S. Riegel; music: Rolfe Kent; cast: George Clooney (Lyn Cassady), Ewan McGregor (Bob Wilton), Kevin Spacey (Larry Hooper), Jeff Bridges (Bill Django), Stephen Root (Gus Lacey), Nick Offerman (Scotty Mercer), Stephen Lang (Brigadier General Dean Hopgood), Rebecca Mader (Debora Wilton); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Paul Lister/Grant Heslov; Overture Films; 2009-USA/UK)
“Lesser version of Catch-22.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A confusing attempt to comically goof on military intelligence. It’s helmed by Grant Heslov (wrote the screenplay for the Good Night and Good Luck). The attention getting title is derived from the Army’s experimental attempts to make a goat drop dead by just staring at it. It’s based on the 2004 non-fiction book by gonzo journalist-filmmaker Jon Ronson, and is written by Peter Straughan. It revisits Ronson’s U.S. Army’s adventures in paranormal activities, telling a tale out of school that might be more true than at first thought. The lesser version of Catch-22 tried to mix black humor with a dire absurd war situation but couldn’t get at its source counterculture roots with much clarity and the pace is dulled by too many explanations of “remote viewing” that leave the viewer a bit hazy–unsure if those LSD experiments actually worked or if the Fort Bragg occultist unit, called here the New Earth Army, is just one big mind-fuck.

The wacky story line is followed through the eyes of former Ann Arbor small fry reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), whose life is shattered when his trophy wife leaves him for his boss. Bob treks to Kuwait in the spring of 2003 and hopes to sneak into Iraq to bring back a good war story that will make him famous and show wifey she made a mistake dumping him. In a bar in Kuwait, Bob meets the former ace goat-starer of the New Earth Army, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), whom he actually heard about while investigating a story from a wacko psychic (Stephen Root) for his hometown rag about a top-secret unit of “psychic spies” who were trained to kill animals by staring at them with an evil eye. From Lyn we learn the New Earth Army was the idea of a liberated Viet Nam pigtail wearing colonel, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who escaped a near-death incident in Nam and back in the States turned into a New Age remote viewer after engaging in hot tub research, hippie dancing and colonics. Bill was allowed to have his experimental unit train at Fort Bragg, as the Army was trying to think outside of the box to engage the enemy with super powers and were concerned that the Soviets were also active in psychic research.

The nebbish Bob thinks Lyn is weird, but is convinced that he will turn him onto a great war story and travels with him by SUV into Iraq (with New Mexico’s deserts standing in for Iraq). Their desert adventures are slapstick comical at times, but the backstory of the growth and failure of the New Earth Army stagnates the film. Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) is the bad vibe New Earth Army recruit who is responsible for giving the unit a black mark and laying the blame on others. He’s not as good a psychic as the others and out of jealousy undermines the project through sabotage. Larry’s entry into the pic also ruins its comedy efforts and suffocates its story. The bad dude’s story takes away the New Earth Army’s mantra of non-lethal fighting for love and peace and introduces a dark side to the experimental program, which doesn’t translate that well onto the screen.

“Goats” is only funny in fits and starts, but not enough to quench one’s thirst for a more resolute pic or to make any of the characters compelling. When it loses its oomph in the desert and just becomes silly, it can’t be taken seriously any longer and thereby it loses its psychic powers over the viewer.