Thursday, November 5, 2009

How crazy can the Army be? Very

Yes, it's a man staring at a goat.

According to The Men Who Stare at Goats, the U.S. Army at one point began an operation known as The New Earth Army. Led by a drugged-out, hippie officer named Bill Django, the warriors of this disheveled group tried to develop psychic powers, including the ability to make themselves invisible.

Generally, these warriors of the mind sought to use brainpower to avert the worst violence. The title of the movie -- and the Jon Ronson book on which it's based -- derives from another trick that these "hippie" warriors attempted to master: the ability to stop a goat's heart simply by staring at it with death-ray intensity.

I'd warn against trying such experiments at home, but I'm fairly certain few of you have goats on which to practice. And I'd certainly advise against it the next time you take the kids to a petting zoo.

The Men Who Stare at Goats stands as a loopy indictment of the insanity of a military that's always looking for a competitive edge -- no matter how absurd. In pursuit of this goal, director Grant Heslov -- working from a script by Peter Straughan -- introduces us to a small-town journalist (Ewan McGregor) who loses his wife to his editor and decides that he needs a testosterone affirming adventure.

McGregor's Bob Wilton heads for Iraq in hopes that a stint of combat coverage will restore his credentials as a man. After arriving in Kuwait City, Wilton finds himself thwarted. He's stranded in a hotel, where all he can do is look enviously at the big-time journalists who have been embedded with troops, men and women with real stories to tell.

But Bob's fortunes change when he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a guy who claims that he's headed to Iraq on business, but who once belonged to the New Earth Army. As it turns out, Cassady was a premier psychic and devotee of Django (Jeff Bridges), the drugged-out warrior who founded this whacky battalion and who believed that soldiers could be trained to walk through walls, providing they had enough psychic juice.

Unlike Bob, the movie isn't content simply to make it into Iraq. As Cassady and Wilton travel through Iraq, we're offered flashbacks showing how these psychic warriors were selected and trained. We also learn that Django's command was undermined by a jealous sergeant (Kevin Spacey), the kind of insufferable guy who always needed to be at the head of any class.

Cassady isn't a guy who believes in chance. He thinks he has hooked up with Bob for a reason, namely that Bob, too, is a Jedi Warrior. The journalist remains skeptical.

Maybe that's more plot than you need, but the most interesting parts of the movie involve its bizarre -- and possibly true -- events. At the outset, a title card informs us that more of the movie is true than we might imagine.

Clooney can play this kind of comic part in his sleep. I'm not suggesting that he sleepwalks through the movie, only that the role probably fits him a little too perfectly. McGregor spends much of the movie looking flabbergasted, and Bridges seems to have channeled a bit of his shambling, dissolute Big Lebowski character into a military setting.

The acting is good and breezy, but the movie feels episodic and skimpy, and by the end, you may feel shortchanged. Could it be that the filmmakers were so impressed by the idea of psychic warriors that they forgot to develop a compelling plot? Whatever the case, The Men Who Stare at Goats serves up some tasty appetizers, but pretty much forgets to bring on the main course.

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