[Screen It]

(2009) (George Clooney, Ewan McGregor) (R)

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Comedy: After his wife leaves him, a newspaper reporter turned war correspondent learns all about a secret division of the U.S. military while tagging along through 2003 Iraq with an American man who claims to be a psychic soldier.
It's 2003 and Bob Wilton (EWAN McGREGOR) is a reporter for the Ann Arbor Daily Telegram who has to cover weird subjects, such as Gus Lacey (STEPHEN ROOT) who claims he's a former psychic spy trained by the military to kill animals with his mind. Bob thinks he's crazy, but forgets about it when his wife runs off with his editor.

In response and to prove something to himself, Bob goes over to the Middle East to cover the American invasion of Iraq, but finds himself stuck in Kuwait unable to get across the border. That is, until he meets Lyn Cassady (GEORGE CLOONEY), a man that Gus happened to mention as being the most powerful of the psychic warriors. It's only when Lyn realizes that Bob is something of a kindred spirit does he give the reporter the scoop on what he's about.

It turns out Army man Bill Django (JEFF BRIDGES), having learned in Vietnam that some soldiers purposefully avoid shooting the enemy, came up with a new philosophy for winning wars. Namely, that was through peace rather than war with the New Earth Army, approved by Brigadier General Dean Hopgood (STEPHEN LANG) and consisting of various soldiers with psychic abilities, such as Gus, Lyn and others. But things changed with the addition of Larry Hooper (KEVIN SPACEY) who was jealous of Lyn's abilities and related accolades.

Back in the present, Lyn informs Bob that he's really not retired, but instead is on a covert operation. The two then head through the desert where they end up freeing local hostage Mahmud Daash (WALEED ZUAITER), and later run into military contractor Todd Nixon (ROBERT PATRICK) and his men, all as Bob learns about the secret and bizarre division of the U.S. military.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Most anyone who's visited a zoo can tell you that simply gazing in the eyes of any captive ape lets you know there's an intelligent brain at work. I've never been close enough to say the same about dolphins or elephants, but even owners of domestic cats and dogs will tell you that staring into their eyes gives you a sense of something in there far greater than a "just a dumb animal."

While I've never had the pleasure, I doubt the same holds true for most farm animals. I'm not saying they're all dumb, but if some greater level of smarts exists within their noggins, you can likely bet such critters are probably none too happy with their human masters who keep them for their milk, fur or meat.

Granted, I doubt too many people stare into the eyes of such farm animals. After all, few want to form any sort of emotional bond with what's essentially a commodity. But that's not the point of such animal eyeball gazing that occurs in "The Men Who Stare at Goats."

While that might sound about as exciting as "The Men Who Stare at Paint Drying," "The Men Who Stare at Grass Growing," or, worse yet, "The Men Who Stare at Painting Drying on Growing Grass," the actual goat starring only makes up a small part of this military satire from director Grant Heslov.

Working from Peter Straughan's screenplay adaptation of Jon Ronson's book, the film focuses on a secret, elite and, let's face it, fairly goofy division of the U.S. military that's uncovered by a newspaper reporter turned war correspondent in 2003 Iraq.

The film's tone is immediately set as we watch a Brigadier General concentrate, ready himself, and then take off in a sprint toward a wall in his office. His intent is to pass through it, not destructively like a rampaging bull but instead as something akin to radiation slipping by and around the structure's molecules. The joke, of course, is that he simply bounces off it.

That's followed by the reporter (Ewan McGregor) having to interview an apparently crazy man (Stephen Root) who shows footage of him knocking over a hamster with just his brain power; the reporter getting a career advancement when his coworker plants his face in his desk following a massive coronary; and then the reporter's wife running off with his one-armed editor whose prosthesis is big, black and shiny.

Some viewers may find all of that -- and the reporter's discovery of a secret military program code-named Project Jedi (the joke being McGregor famously played one of those in the second round of the "Star Wars" films) -- as hilarious, but for yours truly, all of that, along with the rest of the material to follow, only came off as amusing at best (especially the Jedi joke that's repeated ad nauseam).

For the record, and despite what the title seems to indicate, the goat starring bit (where such a critter is dropped to the floor via the above hamster procedure) thankfully doesn't get the same sort of repeat treatment, but like everything else (including George Clooney hamming it up as a seemingly slightly crazed man whose claims of psychic powers seem more delusion than illusion), it's only moderately diverting.

Part of the problem -- okay, to be accurate it is "the" problem -- is that the film is a disorganized mess when it comes to storytelling. I don't mind non-linear plots as long as the structure works, it somehow makes things more interesting than if told straight from A to Z, or it serves to engage and/or entertain the viewer.

Here, Heslov employs the flashback technique where long sequences -- such as the one featuring Jeff Bridges as a new-agey military hippie who creates the New Earth Army and its Jedi program, only to be ultimately undermined by one of his protégés played by Kevin Spacey -- as well as quick, comedic asides continuously pop up during the present day story as it exists in 2003.

The issue with all of that is that more attention was seemingly paid to all of them rather than the main story. Sure, it all ends up connecting in the third act. And yes, the efforts that some military types will go to in order to achieve victory is certainly deserving of barbed satire. But if it's not all done in a smart enough way to keep us interested (the road trip aspect of the story -- where McGregor travels with Clooney's psychic soldier toward an unknown destination -- is fairly boring), the result is a decidedly less than entertaining experience.

Who knows, perhaps such ex-military folks now work for movie studios and focus all of their psychic energies to convince moviegoers to buy their product. While some form of manipulation has always been employed and then deployed on the masses, no amount of telepathy can make something hilarious when it's only amusing, and it certainly can't help when the product is disorganized and repetitive.

Now if they'd focus their mental powers on getting their filmmakers to create better product, than we'd really be on to something. Nowhere as boring as the titular activity but clearly not as funny or entertaining as it could have been and certainly thinks it is, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed October 29, 2009 / Posted November 6, 2009

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