“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is a lot of things. It is almost the story of a journalist running off to Iraq, in order to prove to his ex-wife that he’s a man of integrity. But that angle isn’t quite developed. It is almost an indictment of war, and of greedy war profiteers. But that concept isn’t quite all there either. It could also be an homage to literary works like The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, or The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson. But no, the story of a person obsessing over unraveling the mystery of a secret society is also not quite what “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is about. This film could also be about corrupting the system from within, about believing in things that one might normally dismiss out of hand, or it might just be a rather unlikely buddy film. But again: not exactly.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” manages to create a series of occasionally hilarious, often surreal, and supposedly true character moments (a title near the beginning of the film states: “more of this is true than you would believe”). The members of the principal cast (Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, and George Clooney) each do a fine job with their over-the-top characters. Each of these men gets to deliver a handful of truly choice lines of dialogue, and a few genuinely funny lines.
With that said, the story is rather simple: Bob (McGregor) is a reporter who has been dumped by his wife (Rebecca Mader; the only woman in the film, and she is only in it for perhaps two minutes). He meets Lyn (Clooney), who was once supposedly the superstar of a secret United States government project aiming to develop psychic warriors called the New Earth Army, but just as often referred to as “Jedi.” This, of course gives McGregor about fifteen thousand opportunities to deliver lines like “I wouldn’t know anything about being a Jedi.” The first three examples are funny, the rest grow old quickly (even as McGregor manages to work in a line about a “blonde farmboy on a desert planet”). The two men end up in Iraq, and in trouble. In voice-over and flashback, Bob relates Lyn’s history, including his relationships with the hippie Bill (Bridges), the founder of the government program, and with uptight Larry (Kevin Spacey), the guy who messes it all up. Eventually, Bill and Larry catch up with Bob and Lyn in the present, and further hilarity ensues. Along the way, the film touches on mystical martial arts, the “death touch,” killer bees, Barney (yes, the purple dinosaur), MK Ultra, invisibility, Ken Kesey, the origins of various U.S. Army slogans, Billy Idol and Boston (the band), warrior priests, hippies, “remote viewing,” and Hannibal Lecter.
Through all of this, those waiting for the film to have a point, to say something, to have a core meaning or a message, might be disappointed. It always stops just short of being meaningful on any real level. In some ways, this snarky tale is reminiscent of “I (Heart) Huckabees” in that it begins by suggesting that the characters – with their new-age babble and pretensions of philosophy – are to be taken seriously, before swiftly devolving into amusing caricatures. The difference is that with “Huckabees,” deflating the pompous characters is the point, but with “The Men Who Stare at Goats” it is not. Perhaps this watchable and entertaining tale doesn’t need to have a point. But, it is frustrating to see this much raw talent on the screen, not to mention behind the camera, and to have had these people produce something that hints at so many complex things, but ultimately fails to deliver on them.
It’s just a comedy, then.
So be it, Jedi.