Nazis and Soviets aren’t the only armies that got to dabble in crazy psychokinesis experiments. Apparently the U.S. Army explored supernatural battle techniques in the 1980s in a top-secret program that tried to build super-soldiers who could divine the location of captured troops, become invisible, walk through walls and make animals keel over just by staring at them.
The way director Grant Heslov tells the story in The Men Who Stare at Goats, the program — dubbed the First Earth Battalion — was an ill-conceived joke, with bizarre elements of tantalizing promise sprinkled throughout. So Heslov runs with the silly themes and turns the film into a deadpan comedy, mocking the concept of psychic soldiers even as it coaxes you into believing that George Clooney can stop a goat’s heart with his penetrating glare.
Continuing his comedy kick (Leatherheads, Burn After Reading), Clooney sells his character — a former member of the Battalion now serving as a government contractor, who tells his story to a journalist (Ewan McGregor) he meets in Kuwait — by keeping the self-aware mugging to a minimum and spitting out self-deluded lines with a straight face. He makes you laugh both at and with his character as he eludes terrorist capture, gets marooned in the desert and crashes his car while attempting to separate clouds with his mind.
McGregor, who only shrinks under Clooney’s overpowering comic glow, is a game straight man who handles his half of the befuddled banter with ease, and Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey ham it up masterfully as Clooney’s former psychic brothers in arms.
Peter Straughan’s peppy, Star Wars-reference laden script matches Clooney’s star power, but the plot goes a bit too far off the rails at the end, with a groaner finale that makes you want to stare at the screen and try for some spontaneous combustion action.
Starring Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. Written by Peter Straughan, based on the book by Jon Ronson. Directed by Grant Heslov. Rated R. 93 minutes.
Also opening this week:
Disney’s A Christmas Carol: Jim Carrey plays a billion roles in a Mouse House take on the Charles Dickens Christmas fable.
•Odds Carrey goes into “funny-face” convulsions: 3-1
•Odds this movie tells the story more effectively than its umpteen other adaptations: 500-1
•Odds Tiny Tim dies in the end: 10,000-1
The Box: A couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) receives a mysterious box that gives them a million dollars and kills someone they don’t know. Yep, it’s a ripoff of that Twilight Zone episode.
•Odds director Richard Kelly will ever come remotely close to matching Donnie Darko: 50-1
•Odds they don’t open the box: 10 million-1
•Odds the movie ends with the box going to someone the couple doesn’t know: 1-3
The Fourth Kind: Milla Jovovich stars in this thriller about alien abductions.
•Odds the alien backstory makes more sense than that of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: 2-1
•Odds Jovovich shows some gratuitous partial nudity as she does in the Resident Evil movies: 5-1
•Odds water and baseball bats beat the aliens into submission: 50-1
Phil Villarreal’s humorous money-saving book, Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel, is available at bookstores and on Amazon.