By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2009)
These are not the droids you are looking for.
So what do you get when you cross Ishtar with Catch-22? Perhaps something along the lines of The Men Who Stare at Goats, the first genuine goofball farce that anyone has managed to squeeze out utilizing the generally unfunny Iraq War, Mark II as a backdrop. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is a matter of personal taste.
The film is directed by Grant Heslove (Clooney’s partner in their Smokehouse Pictures production company) and written by Peter Straughn, who adapted from Jon Ronson’s “non-fiction” book .
Ewan McGregor stars as Bob Wilton, a recently cuckolded Michigan newspaper reporter who decides on a whim to become a freelancing Iraq War journalist (circa 2003). As he tarries in Kuwait City, uncertain about how to actually go about getting himself into Iraq he crosses paths with a mysterious, intriguing fellow named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who “happens” to be heading that way. Initially playing it coy and denying that he is any kind of spook (in spite of veritably oozing Eau de Black Ops), Cassady does a 360 and opens up to Wilton, spinning him quite a wild narrative.
Before he knows it, the reporter is tagging along with Cassady on his nebulous “mission”, too gob smacked by tales of top-secret U.S. military programs involving the development of “psychic warriors” who liken themselves to Jedi knights, devoted to honing their mastery of various psychokinetic arts, to realize that he could be heading into the middle of the Iraqi desert with a man who is completely delusional and dangerously unhinged (it’s sort of a Hope and Crosby “on the road” flick-except with insurgents and IEDs).
As Cassady recounts the history of his personal involvement with these experiments, we are introduced to two significant characters in his past via flashback sequences (throughout which Clooney, sporting shoulder-length hair and mustache, bears an uncanny resemblance to a White Album-era George Harrison).
One is Cassady’s mentor, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam vet who has written a bible of sorts, from which springs the concept of the “New Earth Army”…comprised of the aforementioned psychic warriors, with a litany of tenets co-opted from the Human Potential Movement to help guide them; think of it as a kind of a “hug thy enemy” approach-like if Wavy Gravy was the Secretary of Defense).
The other character is Cassady’s nemesis, Larry Hooper (the perennially hammy Kevin Spacey) a former brother-in-arms who has turned to the Dark Side (Okay, I’ll just say what everyone is thinking right about now-Bridges is Obi-Wan, and Spacey is Darth Vader…happy?). And now, it seems Luke Skywalker, oops, I mean, Lyn Cassady is on a “mission” to get the band back together.
The fact that Ewan McGregor was the young Obi-Wan in the Star Wars prequels is not lost on the filmmakers, who provide him with opportunity for self-referential spoofing reminiscent of Ryan O’Neal’s classic deadpan in What’s Up, Doc? (when he responds to Barbara Streisand’s Love Story quote, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” with “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard”).
There is some unevenness of tone, but with a dream cast, who are all obviously having such a great time, it’s easy to enjoy the ride. In fact, the film is a throwback to a certain kind of quirky, unfettered, freewheeling satire that pervaded the mid-to-late 60s; totally-blown fare like The Magic Christian, Skidoo, Candy and The Loved One.
A warning: There are two songs you will not be able to get out of your head for days: Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”, and the theme from Barney the Dinosaur’s TV show. You have been warned!