I’m not sure exactly what it says about the state of the world that American filmmakers suddenly seem inclined to refashion amazing, bizarre real-world trauma into goofy comedy. Arriving in theaters less than two months after Steven Soderbergh’s jaunty The Informant!, which reimagined corporate embezzler Mark Whitacre as a solipsistic bumbler, The Men Who Stare at Goats is likewise based on relatively sober (if sometimes dryly amusing) nonfiction: Jon Ronson’s I-swear-this-is-all-true account of the U.S. military’s ongoing endeavor to create an elite unit of soldiers armed with such psychic powers as telekinesis and mind control. This material, however, was plenty nutty on its own—playing it for broad laughs only renders it surprisingly toothless.
Narrated with irritating earnestness (and in a dodgy American accent) by Ewan McGregor, who plays a Ronson stand-in named Bob Wilton, The Men Who Stare at Goats opens with a bit of preliminary foolishness involving an attempt to pass straight through a solid wall (CLONK!), but truly gets rolling when Bob chances to meet special-ops hotshot Lyn Cassady, played by George Clooney in the wide-eyed deadpan mode he usually reserves for the Coen brothers. The two venture into the desert on an unspecified mission, and en route Lyn relates the incredible tale of the New Earth Army, an unconventional unit initially run by a Vietnam vet turned flower-power hippie (Bridges, more or less reprising The Dude). When trouble rears its head, however, Bob learns firsthand just how potent Lyn’s abilities still are. Or not.
Had this insanity been delivered with a straight face, it might well have been hilarious, albeit in a disturbing kind of way given that we’re witnessing our tax dollars at work. But director Grant Heslov—a Clooney crony who co-wrote Good Night, and Good Luck and produced Leatherheads—encourages his cast (which also includes Kevin Spacey as an opportunistic zealot) to mug up a storm, which makes everything seem too zany to be credible. Worse, the film just isn’t funny, unless you’re really tickled by dudes staring down livestock or endless in-jokey Jedi references lobbed at a former Obi-wan. Your own eyelids may grow heavy.