In its trailer, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” had a man jumping off a roof, George Clooney flying through the air with imaginary daggers, it even had a goat keeling over apparently having been killed psychically. After watching it, one wouldn’t have more than a faint idea of the story that was told. That’s not a problem, trailers do this all the time; they’re called teasers. Low and behold, this wasn’t a teaser. It was the movie in 1 minute and 14 seconds.
The film tells side-by-side stories. One is of how a journalist and an ex psychic spy’s different quests for redemption intertwine. And a second of the development and eventual decline of the psychic battalion of the United States Army.
One story is of journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) and an ex “psychic spy” Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). The two meet each-other at a hotel in Kuwait where Cassady is about to embark on a secret mission, and Wilton is waiting to go into Iraq in an attempt to win back his ex-wife. Wilton sees Cassady as his ticket across the border, but once the trip begins, Wilton realizes that he has stumbled upon the story of a lifetime.
Cassady recounts the events leading up to Bill Django’s (Jeff Bridges) creation of a psychic division of the Army, the First Earth Battalion. Cassady tells of the unconventional training methods of Django including guessing the contents of cabinet drawers, attempting to run through walls and even dancing. Cassady and another recruit, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), quickly develop a rivalry. This rivalry creates the contention which the lackluster plot revolves around.
The director, Grant Heslov, did what has now become commonplace for creators of comedies and horror films in Hollywood: they put the best parts in the trailer, leaving nothing for the viewer to enjoy while at the theater.
That’s not to say that this movie didn’t have it’s moments, it had a few. Although not very often, this movie did manage to make me laugh. George Clooney’s drama meets comedy performance was fantastic, as usual. I enjoyed Jeff Bridges performance, which was reminiscent of “The Big Lebowski.” Kevin Spacey hit all his marks and portrayed the snide and arrogant villain very well. Even Ewan McGregor was able to hold his own among these acting greats. The performances weren’t the problem.
As I watched the film, I continued to wait for the plot to pick up. I waited to become entranced within the story. But alas, all I kept thinking was: how long is this?
That’s the real problem. This movie had no story. The entire premise on which the movie’s plot rests is that in the 80s, the Army had a division that attempted to kill mammals with their minds. Sure that’s sorta strange and it’s sorta interesting, but it isn’t something you make a movie about — not when there isn’t a specific story to go with it.
The story, or lack of one for that matter, comes from the book of the same name by Jon Ronson. But if the book is anything like the movie, then I wouldn’t waste my time with it.
It seems as though the author and later the screenwriters found it so absurd that the military would commission such a strange department, that they forgot to include a decent and compelling story to pull the audience through.
Instead the lifeless story is told within a frenetic atmosphere of highly energized characters and forced action. Their attempts at shocking the films heartbeat back into a lively rhythm are fruitless. You can’t fix a weary heart; you can only prolong its life.