Bearing a snarky, double-take title and a premise like a glazed pig on a platter, Grant Heslov’s “The Men Who Stare at Goats” can’t help but get us salivating — be it Chayefskyian satire or schizoid paranormal headtrip or Coenesque destiny farce, we’ll gobble it down, especially if it is, as this movie is, based on reported fact. American military new age telekinetic absurdism! The brown-acid substance of reporter Jon Ronson’s book by the same name is the dizzying crucible at hand — too ludicrous and all true to resist, and yet so much the sum of its chortlesome vignettes that filming it would require either the cargo-cult undergroundism of a Craig Baldwin or the imposed narrative arc of an over-punctuated Hollywood biopic. Regrettably, Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan and producer/star George Clooney have opted for the latter. Which is to say, the madness has been dressed for dinner, and clear soup is served.
The film’s true-story baseline is seductive: after the Vietnam War ended, the Department of Defense and the CIA began various covert “alternative methods” programs that generated, in theory at least, something called the First Earth Battalion — a group of officers and soldiers dedicated to investigating forms of “psychic warfare,” including invisibility, curses, “remote viewing,” “sparkly eyes,” telepathy, autosuggestion and so on. Ronson corralled scores of tangentially related stories into his book, which even in synopsis scans like a fanged, Strangelove-style satire on the desperate irrationalities of militarist Cold War culture.
The film’s tone is goofy and chiffon light, and is as familiar with war as your average Whole Foods-shopping, Obama-sticker Clooney fan. Our surrogate into this nonsense vortex is Ewan McGregor’s Bob Wilton, a stand-in for Ronson who, as a small-paper journalist, stumbles onto stories of the “New Earth Army” and its star warrior Lyn Cassady. Sometime after, when his marriage dissolves, he’s deployed to Iraq to cover the war. There, he stumbles (again) into the retired Cassady (Clooney), who agrees to take him into the desert on a “secret” mission, and in the process, we bask in digitally de-wrinkled flashbacks of the CIA program’s outlandishly dubious history, orchestrated by Jeff Bridges’s Lebowski-ish ‘Nam-vet guru.
So, strainingly abetted by McGregor’s tell-us-about-it narration, Heslov’s film hops from one slapsticky New Age debacle to another for comic relief against Wilton’s arcing discovery of purpose in his wayward life, which is, frankly, four-day-old fish no one will care to buy. But that’s only the largest and dullest problem on the table; much as in Charlie Kaufman and Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” the comedy dares itself to be unfunny half the time, and the frequent evocation of the “Jedi” in and around McGregor’s fresh-faced innocent does little to respark the fizzle. (The two men lost in the desert are out-bantered by memories of C3PO and R2D2 on Tatooine.)
This might be the silliest movie about Iraq made so far, but a problem inherent in Ronson’s fables of idiocy nags when all is said and done: is the paranormal activity “real,” as the characters believe, or is it horse feathers? The film indulges in dramatic “evidence” for both conclusions. Bawling that a movie isn’t fish nor fowl is as old as the medium, but here it’s inescapable: if the psychic phenomena are genuine, then the film is not a comedy. If they’re bogus, it is. If it’s a little bit of both, the confused chuckles die on take-off and then vanish altogether.
Some nonfiction books are not intended by the god of commercial culture to be turned into mainstream films, and Ronson’s book, like Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief,” appears to fall into that club. (“Adaptation” remains, of course, a sacrilegious miracle.) Nobody wants to beat up on “Men/Goats,” because it’s made by Hollywooders who conscientiously buck trends and follow their passion and decide against all reason to make films, well, like this. Not that there isn’t a Dan Brown tincture at the heart of the material’s attraction, searching for the hidden metaphysical whatzits beneath the banality of history. (If it’s an itch that needs scratching, look for Richard Stanley’s 2001 doc “The Secret Glory,” an archival montage detailing the rise and fall of SS officer Otto Rahn, the troubled Nazi in charge of searching for the Holy Grail.) But without going crazy deep into the pathologies or the politics, or even deciding whether or not men could pass through walls given the concentration training, the film’s as slight as an unconvincing card trick.