Jon Ronson’s 2004 book, “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” was a nonfiction look at the U.S. Military’s effort to harness psychological manipulation as a new form of warfare. Again, nonfiction. The film version of the wily tale has rightfully selected an accelerated route of absurdity to depict the inherent weirdness, permitting the viewer a chance to enjoy the oddity without the crippling burden of a real-world hangover. Blithe and teeming with actors having the time of their lives, “Goats” is a hilarious, freewheeling descent into the abyssal madness of the military machine.
A Midwestern journalist with heavy domestic troubles, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) heads over to Iraq to cover the war, looking to challenge himself and prove his worth to his cheating wife. Needing a specialist to help cross the border, Bob meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former diamond soldier of the New Earth Army (NEA), a military unit dedicated to nurturing psychic powers, under the command of new age enthusiast, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). Learning more about these self-proclaimed “Jedis,” Bob is sucked into Lyn’s history, learning about wondrous mental feats of strength and the bitterness of Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a rival who desired his own position of leadership. Traveling into the heart of the war, Bob and Lyn bond as they dodge trouble, trusting in the ridiculous powers of the mind to help them stave off certain doom.
“Goats” is a tightrope act without a safety net, requiring a sense of adventure from the viewer as screenwriter Peter Straughan and director Grant Heslov depict the waves of tomfoolery while satirizing rigid military behaviors and ferocious ambition. “Goats” is a comedy and a zany one at that, highlighting the birth of the psychic warrior, trained by Django to be sensitive souls willing to express themselves through dance, deviating from the military norm -- a generation of flower children for the 1980s, with Lyn the star pupil. Finding his true calling in life as a member of the NEA, Lyn sharpens his untested mental skill while discovering himself in ways never allowed in stricter setting of instruction.
Through Heslov, the concept of psychic warfare is left in a gray area of belief, using Bob as the surrogate who initially doubts Lyn’s explanations, but eventually fully immerses himself in the NEA world, becoming a true believer the more Lyn divulges state secrets in the middle of the Iraq desert. Summoning the miracle of a classic rock soundtrack and trusting the power of careful, considerate framing, Heslov sells the insanity with amazing results, allowing the movie to chase pure goofball splendor, giving in to the slapstick and exaggerated reactions, creating a festive atmosphere where every actor contributes superbly to the eccentricity. Dealing with psychedelic drugs, mind games with goats, and wild stories of unorthodox training, Heslov shows an incredible flair for finger-paint comedy, allowing the picture to gracefully soak up nonsense, sharply performed by the outstanding cast.
Moving into darker, treacherous corners for the last act, endeavoring to tie something madcap into sobering Iraq War history, Heslov extends the conclusion past the expiration date. He stops the party, and the energy is noticeably lacking from the final reel, which feels uncharacteristically severe. Thank heavens the rest of the picture stuck with the silly. Heslov has shaped “The Men Who Stare at Goats” into a lively romp; an indescribable satiric lunge that’s big on laughs and puzzlement, making it a constantly engaging sit despite some potentially off-putting material.