Do you believe you could stop the heart of a goat with only the power of your mind? The men in The Men Who Stare at Goats think so, and, apparently, some real soldiers in the US military believed they could too. Based on a sort-of-true story in Jon Ronson’s book on the same name, the film depicts the bizarre training of the First Earth Battalion, a New Age version of the military dreamed up in the 70s in reaction to the Vietnam war.
George Clooney stars as one of the original members of the movement, Lyn Cassady, who is currently on a mission in present day Iraq. He claims to have psychic powers and keeps in shape by bursting clouds with his mind. In flashback we see his training under hippie flower-loving leader Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). Most seem to accept the group’s airy Earth-loving philosophy, except for Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who would rather use his powers to learn the ways of the dark side.
That’s not just a snappy pop-culture reference either, as Cassady likes to call himself a “Jedi Warrior”. He speaks knowingly about his bushido to an embedded reporter, played indifferently by an American-accented Ewan McGregor, who thinks he’s stumbled upon the story of a lifetime.
I know what you’re thinking: surely this can’t be a true story? Despite a Fargo-esque claim at the outset, the farce on screen certainly isn’t. More a series of offbeat gags than a coherent satire, it’s a case where the actors seem to have had more fun making it than an audience does watching it.
It’s tricky material, and director Grant Heslov, Clooney’s producing partner, never finds the right balance between flippancy and sincerity. Clooney, however, is entertaining playing a variation of his Coen-brothers dumb guy act, and Spacey gets all the best moments as the angry rebel.
Goats is an amusing diversion (with an appropriately loopy title) but enjoyment wears thin as it becomes clear that none of the characters are keen to wake from their deluded LSD-induced slumber.