Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Released yesterday on DVD: "The Men Who Stare at Goats"

Grade: B

In The Men Who Stare at Goats George Clooney wears a heavy mustache and a somewhat shaggier version of the military haircut called a high and tight, two adjectives which also describe his performance in this likable, lightweight, absurdist comedy.

As Lyn Cassady - a fictional member of an Army unit that was weirder and possibly truer than most science fiction - Clooney has shed his cool cat skin to embrace his inner clown. Juggling tics, double takes, eyeball bulges and explosive gestures, he leaps in the air and splats in the sand with cartoon abandon, buoyed by the jokes and the big bounce of his own stardom.

With his thrusting jaw, Lyn looks as if he could have been drawn by Milton Caniff, the creator of the comic-strip tough guy Steve Canyon. Instead Lyn has been drawn in crude if generally effective strokes by Clooney and his producing partner, Grant Herslov, who together also wrote Good Night, and Good Luck. Clooney directed that film, but for this one Heslov has moved behind the camera to make a somewhat ragged directing debut. Though he never settles into a groove, moving between would-be parody and could-be sincerity, Haslov does keep the parts more or less in play, aided by the outlandishness of his story and by the performances of Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Stephen Lang.

Written by Peter Straughan and based on the nonfiction book by Jon Ronson, also titled The Men Who Stare at Goats, the film tells parallel stories that finally join. One involves a journalist, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who after his marriage tanks, heads to Iraq to give his life meaning. What he discovers is Lyn, a recruit in the mysterious New Earth Army, an experimental Army program centered on parapsychology that was developed by a Vietnam vet, Bill Django (Bridges) and pushed into creation by the gonzo General Hopgood (Lang). Realizing that he has the makings of a juicy story, Bob tags after Lyn, a decision that leads him both into Iraq and Lyn's past in the New Earth Army.

Bill's initiative, born in the fields of Vietnam and baptized in the hot tubs of the New Age movement, brings together Buddhism, pantheism, militarism and old-fashioned hooey-ism, the idea being that war can be waged with love, eagle feathers and assorted paranormal techniques - with a few martial arts moves thrown in. General Hopgood and Lyn take to the program with a seriousness bordering on devotional, partly because Bill, or rather the irresistible Bridges, could inspire lemmings of any genius. His batty smile and loosey-goosey gestural performance, which brings to mind a modern dance teacher stoned on good vibes, perfectly complements Lang's spring-loaded turn. (Lang had a very nice 2009, with roles in Michael Mann's Public Enemies and James Cameron's Avatar.)

Clooney doesn't play his part as straight as Lang or Bridges and, especially during the flashbacks when he's forced into a sloppy pageboy, he seems to be enjoying the joke too much. What makes Lang's performance work so well is its unwavering seriousness: he never lets self-amusement cloud his eyes, or his acting. Not so McGregor, a predictably attractive if superfluous presence. What makes this a story worth telling, it emerges quickly, isn't the journalist but the men who thought they could travel the world or stop a goat's heart with their minds. The journalist hook is an easy way into the material, but both Bob and the flashbacks, which probably account for some of Heslov's unsteadiness, get in the way.

There's more in the mix, including another New Earth Army member, played by an agreeably malevolent Kevin Spacey, and many goats. (They stare right back, by the way.) They're all fine company, but like Bob and Lyn's drifting adventures in Iraq, which finds them tooling down dusty roads on a mystery mission, they don't leave much of a trace. There's a curious evanescence to the movie, which while apparently based on truth - it recalls a multimillion-dollar project called Star Gate dedicate to parapsychology research that came to light in the mid-1990s - doesn't add up to anything. It's wacky, amusing. But that's about it. If there are truths to be drawn from the military's use of men to locate hostages psychically, they're not evident here.

There is a Lyn in Ronson's book, Lyn Buchanan, who wrote about his experience in Star Gate in The Seventh Sense: The Secrets of Remote Viewing as Told by a 'Psychic Spy' for the U.S. Military. If you think that sounds outlandish, consider that a document on the Central Intelligence Agency Web site claims that the Defense Intelligence Agency has a psychic center, and that the National Security Agency studies parapsychology. Furthermore, the C.I.A. "reportedly is a member of an Incident Response Team to investigate U.F.O. landings, if one should occur," the site says. "This team has never met. The lack of solid C.I.A. documentation on Agency U.F.O.-related activities in the 1980s leaves the entire issue somewhat murky for this period."

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