In the 13 years since he traded TV soaps for the big screen, George Clooney has become Hollywood’s second-biggest attraction, kept from the top spot only by the travelling circus that is Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and their ever-growing rainbow alliance of children. But like many so-called stars of the modern age, Clooney shines — for most people — mainly in the glossy pages of gossip magazines. Though he is stalked by the paparazzi and pestered by fans on every continent, his CV doesn’t reflect his monster fame, boasting some of the most uncommercial films ever made by an A-lister. For every Ocean’s Umpteen, there are at least three financial flops, films like Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, Solaris and Leatherheads that other actors would only consider making on the way up and not once they’d a) finally got there, and b) managed to stay there.
That Clooney directed two of those films himself says a lot about his attitude to his so-called fame, and the most surprising thing about The Men Who Stare At Goats is that he didn’t do this one, too. Helmed by his Good Night, And Good Luck writer and production partner Grant Heslov, it has the same off-key battiness as Confessions, and the same modest intentions as Leatherheads. Unlike Good Night, And Good Luck, however, it is not a film to be mulled over; it is, a bit like Clooney himself, a very slippery customer, a knowing piece of entertainment that disappears before you can bring much thought to bear. Though never serious, it is always deadpan, and for those who felt his Ocean’s movies were a little too smarmy, it’s a refreshingly different shot of male goofiness, aided by a first-rate and up-for-it cast.
Squaring up against Clooney is Ewan McGregor, enjoying something of a career rebirth this year. Alongside his very funny and surprisingly touching turn opposite Jim Carrey in (the forthcoming) I Love You Phillip Morris, he’s showing signs that, after some public misfires, he has found his comedic voice. Although Clooney inevitably wins out, McGregor puts up a good fight; after all, he is our way into this movie, and if you can’t possibly see how Jon Ronson’s anecdotal book about US experiments with psychic warfare could be converted, wholesale, into a movie, you’re right — it can’t, and they haven’t tried. Instead, McGregor has the burden of selling us the fictional backbone of the film: after meeting Lyn Cassady (Clooney) in a hotel bar while covering the Iraq war from the sidelines, his journalist character, Bob Wilton, relays the contents of Ronson’s book as a series of flashbacks, gleaned from his conversations with Cassady on a road trip to Iraq.
It’s one step up from voiceover, but McGregor maintains a wide-eyed innocence that reflects the often naive tone of Ronson’s writing. But these flashbacks are the dramatic meat of the story, and the first hour of the movie is surprisingly compelling, even though the forward momentum is achieved simply by slotting snippets of Ronson’s book into the road movie format, with the goal of a destination deftly covering up the fact that not much is happening (two guys are driving along in the desert) and there’s very little in the way of subplot (all we know is that Cassady has some sort of mission waiting for him at the end of the line). It’s a tough job, but Clooney and McGregor make plausibly mismatched buddies, and a film that could have been scrappy flows surprisingly smoothly.
The first hour swims by, in this respect, because the stories of the US Army’s infatuation with ‘Psy-Ops’ are painted in broad strokes by the director and acted with an eagle-nosed heroism and seductive absurdity by a great supporting cast. From the off, we have DodgeBall’s Stephen Root as a man who claims to have killed a hamster with his mind. Then we have Stephen Lang as the officer who believes that, by asserting his iron will over matter, he’ll be able to run through walls. But the stand-out performance has to be Jeff Bridges as Bill Django, the only semi-fictional founding father of Psy-Ops, a ponytailed hippie whose attempts to bring love, peace and harmony into a world geared towards pain, death and destruction provide the film’s standout moments — his scenes with the young Cassady (“Free the dance!!!”) couldn’t be funnier.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that, like McGregor, another actor has been doing some good, different, and mostly unsung work lately. After voicing Gerty the robot in Moon and making an unexpectedly amusing cameo in the Britflick Telstar, Kevin Spacey is just terrific as Larry Hooper, the cynical Darth Vader to Django’s Luke Skywalker. And when Bridges, Clooney and Spacey are all on screen, The Men Who Stare At Goats feels most alive — like a military version of Anchorman, with a more subtle sense of stupidity — while Heslov’s bright, heightened colour palette adds the sense of an almost magical, distant summer. Such moments are as close as the film gets to a point — like the custard-pie fight that was cut from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, this is a black comedy about national security, and the ridiculous demands that paranoia will feed.
Despite its myriad minor pleasures, however, Heslov’s film is the perfect showcase for the things Clooney does best. Arguably, this is his best comedy performance since O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and it certainly comes from the same stable. Like O Brother’s Everett McGill, Lyn Cassady is a bit of a Dapper Dan, frequently in a tight spot. But where McGill was a likable fool, Cassady is more complex; like a Woody Allen superhero, he’s a mixture of the daft and the divine, and the fact that his psychic powers do often come to the fore gives this material a weird, old-fashioned Saturday Morning Serial flavour, and this is what the film relies on for the final act. Just as Superman came flying down to save the maiden tied to the train tracks, we find ourselves waiting for Cassady to swoop down and tie up all those tantalising loose ends.
Though Heslov and writer Peter Straughan try their best, however, there just isn’t a satisfactory end to this movie to be found, and the one they’ve come up with — as enjoyable as it is — is not only underwhelming, it feels like an obvious redeployment of everything we’ve seen, with a little sprinkling of sentiment that, though tongue-in-cheek, doesn’t feel right. For the most part, though, The Men Who Stare At Goats, like Inglourious Basterds before it, marks a return to the long-lost idea that there ought to be some fun in movies, and it’s a testament to George Clooney’s willingness to experiment that, at a time when he really ought to be prepping for his next Oscar, he’s up for a laugh and happy to share the fantastic time he’s having. Will it be a big hit? It’s doubtful. But even if it flops, Clooney won’t be slipping to the number three slot anytime soon.