"Now more than ever, we need the Jedi."
At the commencement of The Men Who Stare at Goats, a disclaimer reveals "More of this is true than you would believe". And this is very credible, because this tale of the U.S. Army's attempts to harness psychic powers to create super-soldiers is so bizarre is HAS to be true, in accordance with the "how could anyone make this up?" principle. Furthermore, the program to create said super-soldiers is instigated for one simple reason: the Russians began psychic research because they thought the Americans were doing psychic research when in fact the Americans weren't doing psychic research, and thus the Americans are compelled to commence a psychic research program because the thought of the Russians getting ahead in this field is unimaginable. Considering the practises of the U.S. Army over recent years, this justification is not exactly far-fetched.
Bouncing back and forth through time, the film introduces a hippie named Bill Django (Bridges) who's hired by the U.S. Army as part of an operation to create "psychic spies" - more commonly referred to as "Jedi Warriors". Alas, the program is shut down before any worthwhile wars come to fruition. This brings us to the movie's present - in 2003, a befuddled Midwestern journalist with domestic troubles named Bob Wilton (McGregor) travels to Kuwait in the hope of covering the Iraq War and proving himself to his wife who unceremoniously dumped him. From there, he meets one of the psychic spies named Lyn Cassady (Clooney) who agrees to take Wilton with him on a mission across the border. What follows is the one of most absurd buddy/road movies in history as the two encounter a series of disasters, and Bob is indoctrinated into the way of the Jedi.
Without a doubt, the brightest moments of The Men Who Stare at Goats are to be found within the first hour. Absurdity runs rife during this period, there are countless laugh-out-loud moments, and it functions as a sharp, effective parody of the rules and structure of military (its depiction of the U.S. Army is hysterical). Occasionally, the filmmakers attempt to ask thoughtful questions about warfare, but for the most part they appear to just be concerned with providing a good time. This is achieved well-enough, with a quick pace and several memorable moments of comedy, though it's more of an enjoyable watch than a powerful or lasting experience. Then again, this is a movie about men able to kill goats with their minds, so this is probably about as substantial as such a film can be.
Armed with a winning combination of audacious political satire in the vein of Dr. Strangelove, and the type of off-beat approach reminiscent of the movies of the Coen Brothers (think Burn After Reading), The Men Who Stare at Goats definitely gets points for both wild ambition and entertainment value. Actor-turned-first-time-director Grant Heslov (who co-wrote Good Night, and Good Luck with Clooney and produced 2008's Leatherheads) manages the proceedings with a maximum dosage of quirk in creating this side-splitting, freewheeling descent into the madness of the military machine. Added to this, The Men Who Stare at Goats boasts the best in-joke of recent memory: anyone familiar with the Star Wars prequels will have no trouble realising and laughing at the irony of a baffled Ewan McGregor asking what a Jedi Warrior is. This generates a welcome further sense of amusement whenever Cassady and Wilton discuss the mind powers of the Jedis. It would be interesting to know whether director Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan were aware of McGregor's pending involvement while constructing the script.
By this stage in his career, George Clooney has perfected the Coen-Brothers-influenced art of genial goofiness. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, this is blended nicely with good old-fashioned movie star charisma. Alongside Clooney, Jeff Bridges is brilliantly cast as the stoner and Kevin Spacey wondefully portrays Cassady's psychic rival. When Bridges, Clooney and Spacey share the screen, The Men Who Stare at Goats is extremely lively - like a military version of Anchorman with a more subtle sense of stupidity. This appraisal is only valid for the earlier scenes, however, as their interactions are less interesting during the final reel. Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor is in top form as the endearing straight man. Also worth mentioning is Stephen Lang, whose performance here is side-splitting. 2009 was a great year for Lang, who also submitted remarkable work in Public Enemies and Avatar.
Unfortunately, the conclusion for The Men Who Stare at Goats is extended past its expiration date. The fun is compromised during the final 25 minutes as the brilliant humour erodes, the focus shifts to plot, and there's a noticeable lack of energy. The more the movie concentrates on coherently advancing the narrative, the less enjoyable it is for the simple reason that, as it turns out, Cassady's mission is rather uninteresting. Thank heavens, then, that the rest of the picture is impeccable from top to bottom. For the most part, director Heslov has crafted a delightfully energetic motion picture, and one of the funniest movies to hit multiplexes during 2009. It's also refreshing to witness a comedy such as this which has been designed with a more sophisticated audience in mind, as opposed to the brainless antics of Dance Flick or Year One. How much of this story is actually true is beside the point. Look into my eyes...I compel you to stop thinking about it, and focus on the entertainment value of this romp.