Scientific studies have told us two things about optimists. First, they’re more apt to delude themselves than pessimists. Second, they’re also more likely to succeed.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is a film that sets out to mine the comic potential of the power of positive thinking. What if a visionary optimist with a history of psychedelic drug use (Jeff Bridges) got the ear of the U.S. Army brass and convinced them the best way to win wars was to train peaceful, “shamanic” warriors with psychic powers? What if they believed him?
Goats derives from the nonfiction book of the same name by British journalist Jon Ronson, who toured the world researching what critic Janet Maslin calls “the more sinister aspect of out-of-the-box military thinking.” Among the stories he uncovered was that of Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon — the basis for Bridges’ character — whose plan for a New Age-inspired “First Earth Battalion” within the armed forces was never realized.
At least, not officially. In this fictional adaptation of the book, Ewan McGregor plays a small-time Midwestern reporter who runs across an apparent crackpot (Stephen Root) with grandiose claims that the army trained him in psychic warfare, such as killing animals with a glare (hence the title). McGregor is skeptical, but when he heads to Iraq to cover the 2003 invasion, he meets a mysterious contractor (George Clooney) who tells him the New Earth Army is quite real — and not dead.
With this loopy premise and a first-rate cast that knows how to have fun, director Grant Heslov (who wrote Good Night, and Good Luck) and writer Peter Straughan have produced a murky-looking, meandering movie that only occasionally qualifies as a comedy. Still, it’s got its share of good bits.
Most of those come courtesy of Clooney, who plays Lyn Cassady, a star graduate of Bridges’ secret Jedi mind control program. (Yes, they call themselves Jedis.) When McGregor asks him, “So you have superpowers?” Cassady replies, “That’s correct,” as if confirming he had eggs for breakfast.
Using his manly terseness to hilarious effect, Clooney plays the character as a red-blooded American hero who simply chooses to ignore the abundant evidence that he can’t project thoughts, view remote locations or kill with a touch. Not that Cassady isn’t a formidable fellow — he is, more by dint of conviction than anything else. He’s a master of the pratfall followed by “I meant to do that” — a classic optimist, and someone you want on your side in a fight.
For a bit, as the undercover soldier and the reporter traipse around the desert on a mission that Cassady himself admits he doesn’t understand, Goats feels like a superior twist on the old Beatty-Hoffman clunker Ishtar. Then the filmmakers run out of ideas, and it gets as boring as the actual Ishtar.
Much of the film is consumed by flashbacks to the rise and fall of Project Jedi. These sequences offer incidental pleasures: Clooney in a terrible fake moustache; Kevin Spacey as a petulant rival psychic with a falsetto spirit medium. But the satire of military self-delusion never deepens or gains real resonance. Part of the problem is that McGregor’s character — who also narrates the film — doesn’t evolve much beyond playing straight man to Clooney.
He’s miscast, too. Sure, there’s a meta-joke when McGregor, all wide-eyed innocence, asks Clooney, “What’s a Jedi?” as if he hadn’t played one in three godawful Star Wars prequels. But when you find yourself laughing more at an actor’s filmography than at his character, you know you’re watching the ultimate shaggy-goat story.