November 5, 2009

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The Men Who Stare at Goats (R)
When our government isn’t doing weird, unfathomable things in public, it might be doing truly bizarre stuff behind the closed doors of a special-ops unit — things like training soldiers to be “psychic warriors” like the ones in The Men Who Stare at Goats, a fiction movie based on the non-fiction book by Jon Ronson.

Why can’t the government get its health care act together? Maybe because it spends all its time debleating goats and attempting to walk through walls, the movie posits. When Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney) was in the Army, he went from being a straight-laced soldier to being a Jedi Warrior — the description he has for the men in a unit formed by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). Their task was to use their minds, not their weapons, to end conflict and bring about peace. They were part of the New Earth Army, warrior monks, practitioners of a hybrid of New Agey Yoga mind-body stuff and supernatural X-Files-ish experiments. But then Lyn Cassidy was asked to kill a goat using only the power of his mind and it all went wrong. Now, it’s early in the Iraq war and eager young reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) meets Lyn just as he’s about to go in country for a special mission. He talks his way into the trip and finds himself sliding down a rabbit hole of weirdness.

“You have a little Jedi in you,” Lyn Cassidy tells Bob and we laugh because of course McGregor does have some Jedi in him. What a much better trilogy those first few Star Wars movies might have been if they’d starred Clooney and McGregor and featured Kevin Spacey as a master of the Dark Side and Jeff Bridges as a Dude-ish Yoda.

If you’re looking for your serious commentary on military secrets or torture or, uhm, anything else, look elsewhere because this ain’t it. Full of post-9/11 suspicion and post-modern angst (and a fair bit of you-can’t-believe-it’s-true tidbits from Ronson’s book), The Men Who Stare at Goats is nonetheless as jaunty as Ocean’s 11 but quirky like Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou?. It’s interesting that both Clooney and Brad Pitt — men who set the gold standard for sexy in Hollywood — are at their most enjoyable when they’re playing against their sexiness. Pitt often does it by playing the doof, as in Burn After Reading. Clooney does it by playing the oddball, as he does here. It’s charming and perhaps because it’s so much fun for them to do it’s so much fun for us to watch.

Clooney plays a strange duck who found his place in the world and lost it; McGregor plays a bit of a sad sack who is still looking for his essential self-ness. They make for good buddies in this quirky road movie.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is wonderfully nonsensical, a silly delight. B

Rated R for language, some drug content and brief nudity. Directed by Grant Heslov and written by Peter Straughan (from the book by Jon Ronson), The Men Who Stare at Goats is an hour and 33 minutes long and will open on Friday, Nov. 6. It is distributed by Overture Films