It is always a pleasure to watch George Clooney on screen. His charms are those of a man rather than a boy — a rare thing in an era that holds up Orlando Bloom and other androgynous youths as sex symbols. In this, Clooney resembles the masculine stars of Hollywood in its heyday, in particular Clark Gable, though Clooney’s talent for comedy is greater and his approach to it more daring, as he showed most recently in Burn after Reading.
Clooney has become a successful director, and in recent years also a producer of films with a liberal political message. He is producer as well as star of The Men Who Stare at Goats, which is directed by his friend Grant Heslov. Unfortunately this is a film that never finds its comic tone. It feels undercooked, as if the filmmakers fell in love with their potentially hilarious premise — a US Army unit dedicated to developing paranormal powers — but failed to create a story from it.
The film is inspired by a book of the same name by British (and Jewish) author Jon Ronson, who specialises in gonzo investigative reporting. Ronson claims to have discovered a “First Earth Battalion” set up by a former US Army colonel in the ’70s to explore the military application of New Age mysticism. (It has long been known that the US military and intelligence agencies investigated ESP and psychotropic drugs as long as 50 years ago.)
The movie starts off with a bang — a US general in 1983, wearing full uniform, trying to run through a solid wall. Then it quickly switches to 2003 and introduces small-town reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a limp character not in the book but invented by screenwriter Peter Straughan. Wilton is in Kuwait working up the courage to reinvent himself as a war correspondent when he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), who claims to be an ex-member of an army programme dedicated to eliminating war by the use of psychic powers — and to have killed a goat with his mind.
Cassady is looking for his former mentor Col Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), having had a vision of him in Iraq. Wilton joins Cassady in his quest which eventually takes them to a secret base run by another alumnus of Django’s programme, Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who is clearly on the “dark side”.
The pair’s adventures are accompanied by a voice-over narration by Wilton, telling the story of the founding and collapse of the “New Earth Army”, with long flashbacks to the ’80s and Jeff Bridges (reprising his Big Lebowski performance) in hot tubs. These flashbacks are the funniest scenes in the movie, to the extent you wonder why the filmmakers bothered with the weak modern Iraq adventure.
Clooney and Heslov cannot decide what their satirical target is — whether they want to laugh at the military for going mystical or applaud it. Eventually they settle for a warmed-over ’60s- style climax involving an LSD-assisted prisoner escape that reveals depressing ignorance about both drugs (LSD does not have the same effects as cannabis) and the war (those nice Iraqi insurgents actually blow up marketplaces packed with civilians). You can almost sense a kind of smug carelessness infecting the whole project. Even the set design is lazy and ignorant — it is as if the filmmakers never even looked at photographs of Iraq or a modern army base.
It does not help that the pairing of Clooney and McGregor is chemistry-free. The latter struggles feebly with his American accent and I found myself wondering how such an insipid actor ever became a star. He seems almost invisible in the presence of Bridges and Spacey, who is by far the best thing in the film, apart from the make-up used to make the three older leads look 25 years younger.