Let’s admit this: We decry Hollywood formulism even as we embrace it. Go ahead: Think of your favorite movies, and explain to me how they’re not, in some way, formulaic. We need the guy to get the girl; the hero to beat the villain; the underdog to defeat the champion; and the pretty blonde to kill the boogeyman. Even movies we love because they subvert the formula work, in part, because they’re butting heads with formulism — they begin in a familiar place and veer off. They’re not subverting the formula so much as they’re taking the path less traveled: The guy loses the girl; the underdog gains only a moral victory; the villain becomes the hero; or the boogeyman murders all the pretty little blondes.
It’s not the formula we hate. It’s the predictability. It’s the lousy conceits. It’s the stupid plot contrivances. And it’s the annoying two-dimensional characters. But if you take out the lousy conceits, the predictability, the plot contrivances, and the poor character development, you’re still not going to have much of a movie if you don’t place it into one of the half-a-dozen existing formulas. Those formulas work, damnit. They’re tried and true, scientifically proven to prey upon our emotions. You can twist the formula, poke it, prod it, subvert it, flatten it out and stomp on it, but you still have to ride it. Otherwise, you’re going to be left with a flat, listless film that meanders aimlessly from one point to another and never really pushes any of your emotional buttons.
That’s the case here with Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, a movie that never really goes anywhere, butts up against anything, or plays on our sympathies, our pre-existing notions, our sense of right or wrong, or our desire to see someone succeed or fail. It’s just a sequence of events that portend no task to complete up and until that task is being completed.
Granted, it’s a movie with excellent actors who turn in solid, if staid, performances. Ewan McGregor plays Bob Wilton, a Michigan reporter who decides — after his wife left him for the newspaper editor — to go out an uncover a story. Any story, really. And what better place than Iraq. There, he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a name Bob is familiar with because of an earlier story he investigated about a nutjob (Stephen Root) back in Michigan who claims that there was a secret psychic unit in the army that could stare animals to death and “remote view,” or use their minds to observe a distant place.
Lyn was something of the Master Jedi of this group (and there is a cute irony to the fact that Ewan McGregor is dealing with “Jedis” and “The Force,” a novelty that is lost after the 47th reference). He’s now retired, but claims to be working for a private contractor. He agrees to help Bob get into Iraq, although to what end is unclear and continues to remain so for most of the film. They crash their car; they’re abducted by Iraqis; they escape; and they continue on their road to an unknown destination.
Meanwhile, while all of this is happening, we’re also privy to the large backstory on the psychic unit that was created back in the ’80s to compete with an alleged Russian psychic unit. Mostly it involves Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) filling his unit with a lot of new-age, hippie ideas. The goal, apparently, was to use “peace and love” as weapons of war. It’s not until the very end of the movie, when that backstory converges with the present, that we understand the point of the entire film. Unfortunately, it’s not really a point worth understanding.
The notions behind The Men Who Stare at Goats are compelling in the abstract — a psychic military unit that explores the potential military application of new-age concepts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually translate into very compelling story. Screenwriter Peter Straughan was apparently intrigued by Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book of the same name, and decided to try his hand at writing a script around some of the material that Ronson uncovered, like the apparent facts that the military used the “Barney” theme song on prisoners-of-war and that special forces had smuggled hundreds of de-bleated goats into the country. But Straughan has a difficult time of trying to connect his two main characters’ inadvertent road trip to Ronson’s discoveries, and the result is messy and far-fetched. Moreover, Heslov — making his feature directing debut — plays it too straight to extract much comedy out of the situation, but not straight enough to make it a serious-minded examination of the unit.
But the worst part is, we don’t care about their journeys. It’s meant to be a movie about redemption, I suppose, but redemption from what is unclear. There’s no intriguing villain, either. Kevin Spacey is meant to fill that role, but his character is seriously underdeveloped, and we never get a real understanding for why we’re supposed to dislike him, other than the fact that most Kevin Spacey characters are unlikable. However, the biggest sin of The Men Who Stare at Goats is that there are no heroes, no real victories — literal or moral — and no ideas that are examined except in the most superficial kind of ways. The movie never gains any momentum; it just putters along until it finally runs out of gas.