George Clooney just doesn’t seem to be able to take being a soldier in the Gulf seriously. In David O Russell’s absurdist Three Kings, his character, Archie Gates, was more interested in stealing gold than in liberating Kuwait. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, of which the opening credits tell us “More of this story is true than you’d like to believe”, he is Lyn Cassady, a man who claims to be a member of an experimental US military unit in which soldiers are trained to use their psychic powers to win wars.
These self-titled “Warrior Monks” are the brainchild of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, reprising the wandering-hippie persona that he honed to great effect in The Big Lebowski). In the funniest sequence of the movie, Bill is seen developing the technique over the course of six years at various New Age events including Naked Hot Tub encounters, Beyond Jogging courses and a rather painful-looking course of colonic irrigation. It is his book, the “New Earth Army Manual”, which becomes the bible for a group of psychics being trained by the US army.
The film is based on Jon Ronson’s non-fiction bestseller of the same name, which offered an amusing insight into hilarious attempts by the US government to exploit paranormal abilities to combat enemies. Given the source material and the endless possibilities, it’s surprising that the movie has ended up with so few belly laughs.
The main problem is that the activities of the eccentric group are not the main focus of the movie. Instead it concentrates on reporter Bob Wilton (played by Ewan McGregor, with an American accent which occasionally slips), who, in 2002, gets a job at the Ann Arbor News.
Life seems to be going well until he hears a man on the radio who claims to have inside knowledge of a paranormal military scheme. Soon after meeting with him, Bob’s life comes crashing down. In his narration, which punctuates the action throughout, Bob tells us that his wife has left him. So he does “what all men do when they have a broken heart” – he goes to war.
Watch a trailer for the film
Following a chance meeting with Lyn in Kuwait City, Bob is easily persuaded to join the psychic on a mysterious mission to Iraq. The hook of the film, which forms the main element of the narration, is Bob’s search to find some meaning in his life by means of the trip.
Fortunately, the film keeps flashing back to the story of what happens to the American paranormal program. We discover that Lyn is its star pupil, which has led to him being hated by a new member of the troupe, the spoon-bending Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who has ambitions to start up his own rival battalion. Cue more eccentric activity.
McGregor is the straight man of the pair; things happen to others and not to him. He’s not a very curious journalist and remains rather nondescript. Despite the fact that his voice frames the film, he fails to create much sympathy for Bob. Clooney, sporting a moustache, doesn’t quite play it straight, nor for laughs. It’s a peculiar performance from the actor whose best comedy turns have all been in Coen brothers’ films. He has moments, especially when trying to show McGregor his superpowers, but these are few and far between.
With Clooney and McGregor failing to hold our interest as buddies, the film heads fast into a cul-de-sac, especially as there is little in the way of plot. Director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan resolve this problem by rather predictably having our wandering double-act bump into the former members of Operation Psychic in the middle of the desert.
Here the secrets of the title are finally revealed, in a story that is as disappointing as the rest of the film.