By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
One thing you have to admire about George Clooney is his sense of loyalty — even if it isn't always to his fans.
Clooney paid back the Coen brothers for a signature role in O Brother, Where Art Thou? by succumbing to the hugely disappointing Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. If not for other collaborations succeeding, Clooney wouldn't waste time on Steven Soderbergh's indulgent The Good German, or a couple of Spy Kids larks for Robert Rodriguez.
Now Clooney helps out his Good Night, and Good Luck writing colleague Grant Heslov with his directing debut, the fitfully amusing The Men Who Stare at Goats. It's better than those other Clooney paybacks although at times a thank you card might be more entertaining.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is a nearly shapeless movie based on Jon Ronson's book about a secret U.S. Army experiment to create a platoon of psychic soldiers. A title card informs viewers that "more of this is true than you would believe." In hindsight, it's material that would work better as a mockumentary without celebrity stars. Especially in the case of Ewan McGregor, whose casting becomes an overused inside joke thanks to Peter Straughan's screenplay.
You see, the paranormal experiment is called Project Jedi, leading to numerous Star Wars references. McGregor famously played young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the second trilogy, so anytime the subject is broached we're reminded of that. It's disconcerting, to say the least. But The Men Who Stare at Goats has other problems.
Chief among them is Heslov's lack of playfulness with such obviously absurd material. People do wacky things on screen while viewers are subtly encouraged to believe nearly everything. The Coen brothers, for example, might turn such deluded characters into cumulative comedy; no coincidence that Jeff Bridges riffing on his Big Lebowski role is the closest to a character arc this movie offers.
You don't find it with McGregor's Bob Wilton, a journalist on the edge of the Iraq War who's so desperate for a story that he immediately believes Lyn Cassady's (Clooney) yarn about a "New Earth Army" of peaceniks disarming enemies with psychic powers. Lyn has paranormal explanations for everything; after ramming a car into a rock he pleads "bi-locating" for a moment.
Lyn's ravings lead Bob deep into Iraq, into the custody of insurgent forces, contractors competing for commercial development and eventually to a psychological torture camp run by U.S. forces. The latter is an excuse for Lyn's former psychic soldier colleagues to reunite for a wan climax.
Meeting those psychic soldiers in flashbacks provide the best parts of The Men Who Stare at Goats, especially the ponytailed, Dude-like military shaman Bill Django (Bridges). Bill supposedly created the Army motto "Be all you can be" with a much more Zen purpose in mind than recruiters use. He's a pacifist in warrior's clothing whom Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut would write to high heaven, another funny stoner performance by Bridges, in a movie sorely needing a good buzz.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.