A voice-over by the reporter Bob Wilson (Ewan McGregor) runs throughout this comedy. In irreverent tones (and with the occasional accent slip), he tells us that he works for a newspaper in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and - more unhappily - that his wife is leaving him for his editor. In response, he does what all men do when they have a broken heart: go to war. Luckily for him, there happens to be one taking place in Iraq - but this is about as far from the traditional war movie as one could possibly imagine.
As Stanley Kubrick did with Doctor Strangelove, the director Grant Heslov tries to highlight the futility of war through humour. His source material is the excellent non-fiction bestseller from Jon Ronson of the same name, which offered often hilarious insights into the US government's true attempts to exploit paranormal abilities to combat enemies. (Interestingly given Heslov's absurdist approach to the film, one of Ronson's best-known documentaries is Stanley Kubrick's Boxes, for which the journalist and documentarian had exclusive access to Kubrick's archives and tried to analyse the director's state of mind through his collections.)
Heslov tries to channel this anarchic approach to war by having the fictional character Wilson meet one of the psychic soldiers, who go about calling themselves "Warrior Monks". He catches up with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), one of the men trained by the hippie and war philosopher Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), in a Kuwait hotel and persuades him to tell his story. In a series of flashbacks (the make-up team does a remarkably great job of making Clooney look young), the hilarious antics of the US Army's First Earth Battalion are revealed. It's more like a mental hospital than an army training camp. Attempts to bend spoons and guess what items are behind closed doors are exploited for comedy value.
Life seems to be going pretty well for Cassady until the arrival of Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who believes that he, rather than Cassady, is the best in the business. The pair soon become rivals. Clooney as the star pupil and Bridges (in a performance remarkably similar to the one in The Big Lebowski) as the bumbling teacher are particularly strong in these sequences. There is one gag after another, including a lot of Star Wars jokes. The funniest sequence is the one in which Django appears at various New Age events over the course of six years and gains ideas to incorporate into his New Earth Army Manual, which becomes the group's source material.
However, all these flashbacks are used to mask a simple truth that the film eventually cannot run away from: the plot is wafer thin and Wilson, an affable reporter, is not a strong enough character on whom to hang a whole movie. The film's heavy, sketch-like atmosphere does not aid narrative development and the story finds itself in a cul-de-sac with very limited space to manoeuvre. The third act is demoralising. The comedy is sidelined for a rather predictable tale of redemption in which Wilson and Cassady bump into former comrades. The problem is that this ending follows the classic Hollywood screenwriting philosophy that says plot strands all need to tie together. The madcap nature of the story turns into a lame commentary on corporate commercialism.
It also makes an awkward jump to pick up Wilson's story again. Throughout the movie he feels more like an observer than a protagonist, and thrusting him back into the limelight to show what lessons he's learnt feels like the ploy of filmmakers who have run out of inventive ideas. The scene in which it is revealed why the film is called The Men Who Stare at Goats is particularly disappointing. It's a shame that the end leads a sour taste in the mouth, making it easy to forget all the good times that went on before.
The Men Who Stare at Goats screens Saturday at 8pm at the Emirates Palace auditorium.