What went wrong with this movie? The subject — the U.S. military’s apparently actual flirtation with paranormal warfare — has rich comic promise. And the cast — George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges — couldn’t be much stronger. But while the trailer for [movie id="408557"]“The Men Who Stare at Goats”[/movie] suggests a quirky, Coen-esque romp, the picture itself lacks the Coen brothers’ sardonic intelligence and deft pacing. It wanders and wilts and very quickly falls apart.
The story begins in 2003, with aspiring combat reporter Bob Wilton (McGregor) waiting in Kuwait for clearance to cross over into Iraq. Biding his time, he encounters Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a man with a strange tale to tell. Cassady says he’s a “Jedi warrior” (wink, wink) in the New Earth Army, a sub-rosa military unit dedicated to psychic battle strategies — mind-reading, “remote viewing,” the whole new-age imaginarium. He says he’s been reactivated to locate Bill Django (Bridges), the ponytailed Vietnam vet who founded the NEA back in the early ’70s and has now gone missing. Wilton senses a story here, and decides to tag along.
Given the level of talent involved, you’d expect the movie to have some funny moments, and it does. Clooney, once again getting in touch with his inner halfwit, is enjoyably droll in demonstrating a “sparkly eye” fighting technique and explaining his failed quest to achieve invisibility. (“That was the goal,” he says. “I eventually settled for not being seen.”) And of course there’s the NEA training interlude — now familiar from the trailer — in which Cassady drops a “de-bleated” goat with a clench-browed mind-zap.
The film also benefits from Spacey’s distinctive sour presence as a rogue psychic named Larry Hooper. Hooper has his own sinister paranormal agenda, and he’s not to be taken lightly: He’s a master of the “death touch” — a lethal move so mysterious that its effect can take years, even decades, to kick in.
The movie’s amusements are thinly distributed, though. And as soon as Cassady and Wilton cross the Iraqi border and drive off into the desert, the story starts losing its way. The luckless duo is captured by local terrorists (or bandits or something), and then gets caught up in a shootout at a roadside gas station that devolves into pure, pointless confusion. Then Django — who’s previously been seen only in flashbacks — finally reappears, and the picture gets a momentary lift from Bridges’ roistering exuberance. But his character further muddles the story. Psychic warfare is one thing, but Django is a dated hippy-dippy goof, which is something else. Soon we have soldiers cavorting with flowers and dancing around like summer-of-love loons. There’s even an ill-advised group acid trip that might have given Robert Altman pause. In the end, we’re left wondering how on earth we got here — and when’s the next jeep back.
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