US Journalist Bill Wilton’s wife leaves him for an older guy with a robot arm. Wanting to prove himself during a spell of self-doubt he gets his employers to send him to Iraq, where he hangs out in a hotel and sees no action—until he meets fellow American Lyn Cassady, enigmatic, handsome yet lacking style, charismatic yet over-sensitive. And psychic, it would seem. Cassady’s the one-time star member of an elite, non-lethal, mentalist military unit formed in the 1980s. He claims to be in Iraq on special assignment, and Wilton tags along. That we get to colourful Cassady by way of the shambling, moping, ordinary Wilton seems a perfectly good starting point for the movie. The problem is that Wilton’s apparently convinced the filmmakers that the movie is actually primarily about him.
Wilton’s a stand-in for Jon Ronson, whose 2004 book The Men Who Stare at Goats provides the source material, adapted for the screen by Peter Straughan. As an exposé of the secret history of bizarre American paranormal defense research and its connection to interrogation techniques currently used in the War on Terror, placing Ronson at the front of the book’s narrative makes sense. As a movie however, one based on ostensible facts but staged as fiction, the focus on Wilton feels like a major dramaturgical miscalculation, and not only because of the almost palpably uncertain lead performance from Ewan McGregor.
The directorial debut of Grant Heslov, who co-scripted Good Night and Good Luck, The Men Who Stare at Goats frustrates because it’s sitting on a mountain of comic gold it rarely bothers to fully burrow into. George Clooney was in two movies at the Toronto International Film Festival this year and he was the best thing in both of them. He valiantly embodies Cassady as a boyish man of bruised affectations, wearing a moustache for extra confidence—everybody in this movie wears moustaches for extra confidence—his social skills and general maturity stunted after devoting his adult life to advancing himself in an discipline almost no one can believe, much less appreciate. Clooney’s conviction as he practices “remote viewing” by meditating to Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling’ is a thing of beauty. Jeff Bridges plays Cassady’s mentor Bill Django, a Vietnam vet and New Age Lebowski whose once grandiose iconoclasm has slowly dissipated through petty rivalries, the gradual loss of confidence on the part of the military upper echelon, and middle-age drug burn-out. Kevin Spacey plays Larry Hooper, another psychic warrior so irked by Cassady’s superior talents back in the day that he successfully conspired to oust his competition and command the “First Earth Battalion” himself. It’s ideal Spacey material, Hooper’s childish condescension the perfect foil for Cassady’s oddly touching earnestness and Django’s shaggy, mellow optimism.
When turned loose, the Clooney/Bridges/Spacey trio effortlessly produce brilliantly silly entertainment, but they’re inexplicably upstaged by the Wilton A-story and by Straughan/Heslov’s decision to take material rich in historical resonance—the experimental goats being Iraqi surrogates—and turn it into a humdrum variation on Mystery Men, an utterly inconsequential, middle-of-the-road, lightly eccentric, feel-good comedy about guys who can’t seem to grow up, replete with limpid score and dumb fantasy ending. Not a bad time by any stretch, but a notable waste all the same.