"The Men Who Stare at Goats," starring Jeff Bridges as an Army shaman and George Clooney as his best pupil, is a refreshingly unpredictable and fizzy comic fantasy. It tickles the fancy even when it strains credibility. It riffs off the American military's real-life exploration of unconventional intelligence-gathering and combat techniques as well as the Army's attempts to redefine itself after the bloody mess and stagnation of Vietnam.
History buffs might bristle at the way the film fiddles with the actual Cold War recruitment of "psychic spies" for a project called Stargate, based in Fort Meade outside Baltimore. The screenplay folds that history into an account of the Army's own counterculture: the First Earth Battalion - here called the New Earth Army. It drew on the esoteric practices of the Human Potential Movement and tried to Westernize (or globalize) antique Eastern martial arts.
The seams of all the stitch-work show. But director Grant Heslov (who co-wrote, with Clooney, "Good Night, and Good Luck") balances goofiness and reality with the help of a smart, slap-happy cast. Bridges brings all his loamy, life-embracing appetites to the role of New Earth Army commander Bill Django (based loosely on First Earth's Jim Channon). He's like Bridges' "Dude" from "The Big Lebowski" with the crusading spirit and fortitude required for an inspirational quest.
And Clooney, as Django's top recruit, Lyn Cassady, actually grows into the silliness that the Coen brothers often overblow in films like "Burn After Reading." Sights like Clooney doing Hong Kong warrior-dance moves in midair, without the help of a wire, keep paying off in sympathy and wonder as the film skips and sometimes lurches from one piece of comic synchronicity to the next.
The movie's imperfection is part of its funky charm. Cinematographer Robert Elswit's wide-screen imagery makes this the rare topical comedy with kicky visuals to match its quirky content. Incidents as incongruous as New Earth Army troopers practicing dance therapy - or as startling as them using ESP to find a hostage - provoke a gritty wonder as well as out-of-left-field laughs.
A cavalcade of colorful, mind-expanding anecdotes fill out the slender story of a fictional reporter named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who seeks to prove his mettle as a combat correspondent after a marital breakup. Wilton lands in more adventure than he bargains for when he meets up with super-psychic Cassady and travels with him straight into the badlands of Iraq.
Screenwriter Peter Straughan hit on more juicy material than he knew what to do with when he adapted Jon Ronson's controversial book and began researching the subject matter. (The film contains a grace note or two found in other accounts, not Ronson's.) When the film reveals Cassady's prior history in flashback, Straughan's script forces the action into a tired rivalry between this virtuous psychic (Clooney) and an evil competitor, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey, doing his prissy-hissy villain thing).
But it's a relief to see a movie that is mentally and physically nimble, even if it also plays fast and loose with reality. From beginning to end, it's an unsettling and often uproarious mix of the fictional and the factual. And when its characters play avant-garde mind games, its heart stays in the right place.
Take the instant-classic scene of the goat that drops dead from Cassady's glare. Cassady works his dark magic under protest. Like his mentor, Django, he wants to use his gifts to transform the Army, not merely to bring another weapon into its arsenal. The gap between his inner conflict and his psychic potency just about defines black comedy. You laugh at the sad absurdity of it all as well as the crack slapstick timing. In the movie, the death of the goat produces bad karma that afflicts Cassady for decades. Spacey's bad guy Hooper exploits the incident to prove the destructive power of the trailblazing philosophies that Bridges and company hope will transform the Army into a more world-embracing organization.
Even if you accept this film's madcap chronicle of fringe and sometimes not-so-fringe events (the psychic LSD trips are the low point), it's hard to swallow Hooper's connection of Django and Cassady's legacy to the torture of suspected insurgents and terrorists.
But this movie taxis to the dark side only to break off into the light.
McGregor does something difficult as the reporter: He brings an engaged and amusing consciousness to a blank slate of a character. McGregor is the one who ultimately makes us believe in the ideal of transforming humanity by doing the impossible, such as walking through walls. These days everyone asks Americans to adjust to lowered expectations. After all this talk of "the new normal," "The Men Who Stare at Goats" comes as a relief. It's merry propaganda for the new paranormal.
MPAA rating: R (for language, some drug content and brief nudity)
Cast: Starring George Clooney (Lyn Cassady), Ewan McGregor (Bob Wilton), Jeff Bridges (Bill Django), Kevin Spacey (Larry Hooper) and Stephen Lang (Gen. Dean Hopgood).
Credits: An Overture Films release. Directed by Grant Heslov. Running time: 1:33