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‘Men Who Stare at Goats’ lacks focus

Fri., Nov. 6, 2009

A title card at the beginning of “The Men Who Stare at Goats” announces, “More of this is true than you would believe.”

Unfortunately, less of it is entertaining than you would wish.

The lightweight satire, based on a nonfiction book by British journalist Jon Ronson, is a sort of New Age “Catch-22.” It recounts a period in the 1980s when senior officials in the U.S. military and intelligence services began to believe the next wars would be fought with psychic powers, levitating soldiers and spies who observed distant enemies by closing their eyes, concentrating and waiting for the visions to come.

In top-secret experiments, soldiers tried to kill goats by glaring at them. True fact.

With a premise this rich – occult hoo-ha as an allegory for the insanity of war – and a cast including George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor, how could the film go wrong?

Dozens of ways, actually: episodic structure, slack tempo, a clutter of characters and shaggy-dog subplots, uneven acting and listless direction. I’d rather stare at a goat for 93 minutes.

The film’s point of view shifts unsteadily among narrators and time zones, but the main focus follows McGregor’s Bob Wilton, a small-town newspaperman. One of his assignments involves a local vet who tells “Twilight Zone” tales about a classified Army corps of “psychic warriors.”

Bob heads off to cover the early days of the second Iraq war, where he encounters Lyn Cassady (Clooney), who was named by Bob’s eccentric source as one of the Army’s clairvoyant recruits.

Lyn admits that his unit was called the “Jedi masters.” “What’s a Jedi master?” asks McGregor (who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the latest “Star Wars” films) – a meta-joke the humor-strapped script recycles a dozen times.

As the pair infiltrate Iraq on a vague secret mission, Lyn demonstrates superpowers such as “cloud bursting,” gazing at thunderheads until they dissipate and taking credit for it. He’s less skilled at evading kidnappers or keeping his car on the road.

The film comes apart in the final stretch with hokey redemptions and resolutions in place of real closure. Is it a lampoon of peace-and-love mysticism? A critique of militant war-for-profit privateers?

Ultimately it’s a shapeless wad of goat cheese.


 

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