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Head Games

Head Games (photo)

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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.

11042009_MenWhoStareatGoats2.jpgSome 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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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