An army general is sitting at his desk, staring intensely at the wall. He gets up, runs toward the wall and, believing he will easily go through it, hits the wall and falls onto the ground, disappointed.
He has the skills — or at least he thinks he does — of The Men Who Stare at Goats.
The new film starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Bridges — which is based on British journalist Jon Ronson’s nonfiction book of the same name — depicts the training and development of the New Earth Army, a special branch of the military that incorporates psychic abilities into military combat.
The New Earth soldiers can make themselves invisible, permeate walls and even stop the hearts of living beings just by staring at it. They are referred to by the army as psychic spies, but they prefer to be called Jedis.
McGregor plays Bob Wilton, a down-on-his-luck American journalist who is covering the war in Iraq. It is there in the Middle East when he stumbles into Lyn Cassady (Clooney), who turns out to be the most infamous and powerful psychic spy there is.
Desperate for a good story, Bob eagerly joins Lyn on his newest assignment.
As they journey through Iraq on what Bob has been told is a top secret mission, Lyn gradually reveals the details surrounding the creation and his eventual training under the illustrious Bill Django (Bridges), the leader and founder of the New Earth army.
They are soldiers who fight with their minds, not conventional weapons, and they learn their new-age skills through liberal means such as meditation, narcotics and, most importantly, dance.
The film then continues to jump back and forth between the present day mission and Lyn’s past experiences with Bill, propelling two different storylines at the same time — perhaps the main flaw of The Men Who Stare at Goats.
The strengths within the film come only when the screen is being occupied by Clooney or Bridges.
Their characters have the most energy, get into the most trouble and deliver some of the best comedic lines recited on screen this year.
One of the best scenes involves Bridges teaching Clooney (wearing a dashing wig) how to dance by Bridges in which the subtle, easy humor they share on screen comes off as nothing less than natural. The dancing, among other attributes, showcases the quirks and instinctive mannerisms these two actors convey to make their characters unique and sensational.
Every scene Clooney and Bridges share is priceless, but the same cannot be said about the rest of the cast or the rest of the film.
Almost all parts involving McGregor are bland and carry on for too long. The usually reliable McGregor easily loses his place and charisma (as well as his accent) when measured up against the flawless chemistry between Clooney and Bridges.
To watch McGregor’s facial expressions shift when someone utters the word “Jedi,” however, is still quite amusing, since McGregor portrayed Obi Wan Kenobi in the last three Star Wars films.
But the film’s overall plot, including its dire voice-over narrative, simply does not have any direction. Its brilliant characters can only drive the movie so far before its meandering plot slumps over even more so with an ending that doesn’t tie up any loose ends.
The parallel storylines of the past and the present are crudely infused, leaving not nearly enough scenes involving the development of the psychic spies. Every time the film cuts back to McGregor, the pace of the film slows until Clooney’s professionalism finally comes to rescues it.
Although The Men Who Stare at Goats is advertised and often played as a comedic farce, the film inadvertently switches to melodrama halfway through and attempts to lecture its audience about America’s presence in Iraq with the worst subplot of the film. These social critiques are rendered corny and painfully out of place.
First-time director Grant Heslov — who co-wrote Good Night, and Good Luck with Clooney — has yet to find comfort as a director. There is no rhythm to the film and the better scenes are almost always interrupted by horrible ones, taking screen time away from what is actually very good and very funny about this film.
Although The Men Who Stare at Goats has two great characters inhabited by two great actors, it does little else to make staring at it tolerable.