George Clooney makes an inauspicious return to the deserts of Iraq in The Men Who Stare at Goats, a jokey mess so far from the humane, satirical alchemy of Three Kings that a revocation of the producer-star’s cinematic passport to the land of military-industrial japery seems in order. Clooney is former Special Forces officer-turned-wartime-contractor Lyn Cassady, encountered in 2003 Kuwait by an itching-for-action journalist (Ewan McGregor, playing astonished straight man to everyone else) overcompensating for an ugly marital split; hearing the vet’s tall tales of his ‘80s training as one of a secret unit of “warrior-monks” aiming to develop their paranormal talents into superpowers that could preempt armed conflict, the skeptical but thrill-seeking reporter hops into Cassady’s car for a ride to Baghdad and soon finds himself a stooge on the would-be visionary’s ill-defined psychic “mission.”
This road-movie plot strand repeats the same gags wearily, mostly variations on Clooney attacking McGregor with “mental energy” efficiently channeled through karate and a handily utilized bottle opener, but the quest turns out to be genuine: a confrontation with Cassady’s former rival (Kevin Spacey) in his old corps of telepaths, now leading a private militia specializing in prisoner abuse via strobe light and endless play of Barney the Dinosaur’s theme song—Zen tactics twisted to the dark side. (It’s typical of the film’s labored snark that the psychic soldiers’ “Jedi” ways are repeatedly detailed to a baffled ex-Obi Wan McGregor.)
Director Grant Heslov, co-writer with Clooney of their overpraised but infinitely more focused Good Night, and Good Luck, briefly finds a decent comic groove in flashback sequences where a ponytailed Vietnam hero (Jeff Bridges, doing a more goal-oriented Lebowski turn) leads his “New Earth Army” through freeform dancing, meditation, and amphetamine jags, but it’s dumb, easy fun with no ambition beyond putting Clooney in a shabbily shaggy wig. Loosely “inspired” (dependably a red flag in adaptation credits) by Jon Ronson’s nonfiction bestseller, Men Who Stare at Goats ends in a confused mix of LSD-induced giggles and a call-to-destiny that seems both parodic and sincere. Its scattershot blasts at unconventional warfare and hippie transcendentalism are too impotent to produce much laughter, let alone the characters’ longed-for ability to run through walls.