A gag early in the eccentric military comedy The Men Who Stare At Goats neatly summarizes what the movie’s about. George Clooney, playing one of a secret cadre of American super-soldiers, is driving into Iraq with hapless reporter Ewan McGregor by his side, and is attempting to demonstrate his ability to disperse clouds with his mind. Clooney successfully clears the sky, but while his eyes are off the road, he crashes into a boulder. The Men Who Stare At Goats effectively satirizes the blinkered arrogance of military types and New Agers, showing Clooney and his colleagues—played by Kevin Spacey, Stephen Root, and Jeff Bridges, among others—behaving as though they’re doing something unusual, when they’re really just using fists and weapons the same as any other grunt. Throughout the movie, director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan (working from a non-fiction book by Jon Ronson) offer about two dozen variations on the notion of an idealistic know-it-all so committed to his shtick that he fails to see what’s right in front of him.
The problem with The Men Who Stare At Goats is that this joke wears pretty thin after a while, even though Clooney’s sincere line deliveries and crack screwball timing never fail to amuse. The movie has a strong point of view, and it’s good to see that odd-but-real character type, the “warrior for peace,” show up onscreen. But Heslov lets the tone go too broad too often. While it’s amusing to hear uniformed men talk earnestly about embracing the code of the Jedi (especially when they’re sharing this code with McGregor, who knows a thing or two about Jedi), Goats’ relentless whimsicality and boisterous “Are we having fun yet?” score works much harder than it needs to. As a result, a true story about fringe military tactics becomes so frivolous that it seems like a total put-on, which tends to undercut the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction message. Hey, this is a movie about a “New Earth Army” full of misfit soldiers yearning for a chance to be non-conformists with a cause, which means it’s already two-thirds of the way to being awesome. Had Heslov eased back a bit, Goats might’ve made it the rest of the way.