Purportedly based on a true story — yes, really — The Men Who Stare at Goats contains some of what the title promises. Men do, in fact, stare at goats, although they only do so in one scene. Mostly, the film is split into two sections. The first involves a journalist and a former psi-soldier heading into Iraq on “business” while the second is a series of flashbacks regarding a secret military group of psychic soldiers who are dubbed “Jedi Warriors,” because why not?
Let’s start with the present day. The reporter is Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a man who is depressed after his wife leaves him. He decides he needs to do something, and heading to Iraq would be a good something to do. He’s unable to cross the border, though, and winds up staying in a hotel for a month. Here, he meets retired soldier Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who was a member of the New Earth Army — the aforementioned psychic soldiers, although they mostly come across as a bunch of hippies who may or may not even have any powers. They head into Iraq together, and along the way Lyn tells Bob all about his time spent in the army.
That story is certainly an interesting one. We learn how the whole movement got started, how the soldiers had to try to hone their powers, and also why goats got involved. It’s funny, satirical, and since it’s based on something that actually happened — well, it’s even funnier, really. I’d wager about half the film is spent in flashback mode, and as a result about half of it is really enjoyable to watch.
The other half, the present day section, winds up suffering. Bob and Lyn get into a little bit of trouble, but it’s nowhere near as interesting as anything that happens in the flashbacks. Sure, Lyn gets to use his powers a little bit, and eventually they find a greater purpose in Iraq, but it’s dull on its own and incredibly dull in comparison to what, chronologically speaking, came before it. I almost wished the whole film was just Lyn’s story as he progressed through the ranks of the New Earth Army.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is an oddball movie. Its premise is unlike almost anything else you’ll see, and its quirkiness helps it stay fresh. Sure, the present day section isn’t anywhere near as engaging as the flashbacks, but the bizarre nature of the proceedings allows for it to remain watchable. That whole setup exists mostly for Lyn to explain to Bob what used to happen anyway; much like us, Bob is bored at the present day stuff and is simply waiting to hear (or tell us) more of what happened back in the day.
Part of the problem with the present day parts is that the narrative winds up putting both Lyn and Bob on an actual “mission,” and that mission is wholly uninteresting. It doesn’t do anything special and the psychic powers that had been built up for the better part of the film’s first half wind up becoming largely inconsequential. I will say, however, that once the mission becomes one of the rescuing variety, the silliness of the picture got to me and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.
There are more jokes. I’ll ruin only one. Since the psychic soldiers are dubbed “Jedi Warriors” by the characters in the film, numerous Star Wars references exist. Ewan McGregor was in the Star Wars prequels. He gets to spout the line “What’s a Jedi Warrior?” How hilarious is that? Not really? Well, perhaps it works better in the moment, or when delivered by a good actor who says it with such innocence even though he had to be holding back his own set of laughs as he was saying it.
Backing up Clooney and McGregor is a fantastic set of supporting actors, most of whom go to waste. The third most screen time goes to Jeff Bridges, who plays Bill Django, the one who started training soldiers in the New Earth movement. Fans of The Big Lebowski will notice the role isn’t a stretch for Bridges, as he’s basically just playing The Dude again. It still works. Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick and Stephen Lang all show up in supporting roles, although they’re unfortunately barely noticeable.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is a funny movie about, among other things, men who stare at a goat. But it’s mostly about some of the training that happens in the army — it takes a funny and satirical look at that. It has good performances from a great cast, even though much of the supporting work goes to waste. The flashback scenes are more interesting and far funnier than the ones taking place in present day, and it’s the latter which hold the film back from really working all the way. By the end, I was ready for it to be over. Its quirkiness saves it a great deal, but this is a very tough film to recommend. It’s too bizarre and not quite good enough to overcome its absurdity.