By Felicia Feaster
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, über-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 the preemptive telepathic 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 a newspaper reporter who resolves to head to Iraq to prove his tough-guy street cred. When other war-hardened reporters snub him, Wilton takes up with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former member of Django’s New Earth Army, who agrees to take him into Iraq.
The Men Who Stare at Goats cuts between Wilton and Cassady’s Iraqi misadventures and the efforts of Django, beginning in the ’70s, to bring hippie values to the Army. Django’s 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 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 is handling a pretty sophisticated genre for his directorial debut, and the film gets away from him pretty quickly. 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 stand-up comic whose jokes keep falling flat, things are never quite as funny as screenwriter Peter Straughan may imagine. The “humor” tends to involve one-note sight gags of telepathically euthanized goats and hamsters keeling over, and 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.
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 could allow a nuclear holocaust to happen. The Men Who Stare at Goats is so intent on being funny and ironic 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.
The Men Who Stare at Goats
Directed by Grant Heslov
With George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey