At TIFF: The Men Who Stare at Goats

Movieline Score: 7

War is hell -- that's a well-established fact. But war is something else, too. War is weird. Particularly the war that began eight years ago today, fronted as it was by a puppet President who liked to play flight suit dress-up. Its tyrannical despot target was found living like a well-heeled mole in a tunnel beneath the ground, and his tribunal and execution would bring such matters into the YouTube era. Meanwhile, his loyal footsoldiers (or were they our allies? It's so hard to tell) were sequestered behind prison walls, where they were subjected to exquisitely perverse human rights violations -- everything from waterboarding to cheerleader formations to Barney the Purple Dinosaur singing "I Love You" at ear-shattering volumes on infinite loop.

That last detail emerged from The Men Who Stare at Goats, a book by U.K. journalist Jon Ronson which revealed, to the Pentagon's chagrin, some of the too-insane-to-be-true strategies employed by the U.S. Dept. of Defense since taking a wrong turn into an open bottle of LSD somewhere around Vietnam. Oddly enough, the Barney anecdote was the only detail from his reports the press seized upon. Apparently the other stuff -- the Army-sanctioned and subsidized paranormal special-ops forces, the training to locate the enemy via ESP, the walking through walls, the teleportation, the killing farm animals with their eyes -- was a little too out-there for the nightly news.

Which brings us to the film of the same name -- a lean, funny and suitably weird spin on the material from director Grant Heslov, a frequent producing partner of George Clooney, with whom he co-wrote Good Night, and Good Luck. Ronson's book had all the makings of a stranger-than-fiction screwball war farce, and screenwriter Peter Straughan weaves many of its factual anecdotes into the fictional story of a chance (or not so chance, it turns out) encounter between two very different men.

Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is an Ann Arbor-based newspaper reporter lacking anything resembling a backbone. After his wife leaves him for a one-armed man in his office (perhaps a knowing wink to Dr. Strangelove, this film's spiritual predecessor), Wilton heads to Iraq to get the story that will win her back. Forbidden from crossing into the war zone, Wilton finds himself killing time at a Kuwaiti resort. That's where he meets Clooney's Lyn Cassady, a shifty guy with a mustache who claims to be a trashcan salesman. Wilton remembers the name, however, from a story told to him earlier in his career by an interview subject (played by Stephen Root) -- a self-professed psychic who swore the army was breeding a new class of supersoldier who could kill animals telepathically. (He then shows a demonstration on a hamster, which earns one of the film's biggest laughs.)

Convinced by a random notebook doodle that Bob was placed in front of him by larger, Yoda-like forces for a reason, Lynn then begins to reveal the mysteries of the Jedi Warriors. (Star Wars mythology, it so happens, figures heavily into the military's psychedelic training programs.) In flashback, we learn of the movement's Obi Wan -- Bill Django: a Vietnam vet turned New Age-espousing military adviser tasked by a similarly crackpot-minded superior to train a squad of psychic soldiers. (Jeff Bridges plays Django, like a hippie Dude with a meticulously braided ponytail and a can-do attitude to match.) "We must be the first superpower to have super powers," he tells the recruits, before encouraging them to express themselves through dance.

In the present, meanwhile, things aren't looking up for Bob and Lyn, who've been captured by Iraqi criminals who plan on selling them to scarier, video-making criminals for a hefty profit. Like Hope/Crosby, Beatty/Hoffman, and C3P0/R2D2 before them, it's here that Clooney/McGregor emerge as one in a long line of Hollywood odd couples set hopelessly adrift in a sprawling desert. What is it about those arid landscapes that lend themselves so well to buddy comedy? Perhaps it's the blank canvas of rolling sand dunes -- plus the added threat of death lingering overhead like a magnifying glass trained on an ant by a sick kid (or director) -- that allows us to focus, free from distraction, on two sparring men grappling with the fundamental essence of life itself. Hallucinating For Godot. It's a recipe for funny.

McGregor still can't seem to nail an American accent as well as he nails his character -- in this case, a skeptic and a coward forced through circumstance to question the first and overcome the second. Clooney, meanwhile, scores consistently on his frequent comic bits, but in Lynn is weighed down by being something of a cipher. Beyond a brief glimpse via flashback at an unhappy childhood, there's little here telling us, crazy or not, what makes this guy tick. That might help to explain why the the third act unravels as it does, with the movie's villain, Larry Hooper -- played by Kevin Spacey as his stock insecure bully, in a part I'd have so rather seen go to somebody else -- reemerging for a slapdash climax meant to somehow tie together the tangled strings of the previous 90 minutes into a satisfyingly absurd conclusion.

It didn't work for me, but hey -- it's all about the journey, man. Let's dance.