“More of this is true than you would believe.” So says an early title card for The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009), a quirky comedy about a top secret U.S. military unit dedicated to psychic operations. Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), after a traumatic break-up, leaves his newspaper job in Michigan to be a “real reporter” in the Middle East. In Kuwait City he meets Lyn “Skip” Cassady (George Clooney) — a man he’s heard of, coincidentally, from an interview he did on his old job with a crackpot who claimed to have psychic abilities. Wilton latches onto Cassady as a means of getting into Iraq, but then becomes absorbed by stories of Cassady’s history as a member of the “New World Army,” a secret division of military intelligence dedicated to exploring New Age concepts, the paranormal, and psychic powers. Among other things, Cassady claims to be a “remote viewer” (capable of out-of-body experiences) and to have the ability to infiltrate the minds of enemy combatants. As the duo journeys across the desert, Wilton becomes entranced by the unit’s history, from its well-meaning beginnings to its turn to the “dark side,” even as he and Cassady have their own adventures in the present day.
With its unique premise and its talented cast, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a fun, weird little movie, probably a “like-it-or-hate-it” affair depending on your taste. I’m not sure it realized its full potential; it felt a little like Coen Brothers Lite — amusing without being laugh-out-loud funny, almost edgy, almost controversial. Even so, it’s still a one-of-a-kind contraption, capitalizing on effective chemistry from its two leads and the sheer quirkiness of its subject matter. Clooney carries most of the comic load, while McGregor makes for a great straight man. The film digs at the absurdity of the American war culture, and while it doesn’t always seem to have a firm grip on either its funny bone or its serious subtext, it’s generally entertaining and engaging stuff, likely to develop a minor cult following.