Ewan McGregor has been a major movie star in the U.S. for at least ten years now, but he has yet to master a credible American accent. Given that the author of the book that inspired Men Who Stare At Goats, Jon Ronson, is English, it shouldn't have been a problem to let McGregor trot out his trusty British accent and act as an actually believable center of the film, rather than just one more shaky element in a movie that barely keeps from toppling over entirely.
Based on a true story about an American military unit dedicated to psychic warfare, the movie has so much to work with, and yet uselessly chops up the narrative between flashbacks and the present and a series of hairpieces for George Clooney. McGregor, as the bored journalist Bob Wilton seeking a story in Kuwait, allows us into the story when he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a former member of the psychic unit who claims he's been reactivated on a mission into the Iraqi desert. As Bob and Lyn flail about in the desert, getting little done, a series of flashbacks introduce us to the real story-- the psychics, called the New Earth Army, and their seemingly endless series of kooky stunts.
Led by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a soldier-turned-New-Age-guru, the New Earth Army is a combination of hippy-dippy idealism and a genuine belief that the human brain can kill a goat, or at least see through walls. Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman is fun as one of the more bewildered soldiers, but hamming it up beautifully is Kevin Spacey as Hooper, the angriest of the group who's also jealous of what appears to be Lyn's genuine psychic ability. Bridges, Clooney and Spacey are all competing for silliest facial expressions and best comedic timing, but just as soon as you get into their groove it's back to Lyn, Bob and that blasted desert.
When Lyn and Bob finally reach their destination, Bill and Hooper and all the gang are there to greet them, and it's a happy reunion until you realize, still, this movie has no idea where it's going. The New Earth Army is made to seem like goofy fun until, in the last half hour, director Grant Heslov asks us to seriously consider how much better our world would be if our soldiers were going to battle with only their minds. By the time Bob and Lyn gleefully free dozens of goats and a number of prisoners-- who are probably actual criminals!-- it's clear that the audience and the filmmakers are on totally different wavelengths.
We never know whether or not we're supposed to believe in Lyn's psychic abilities, nor are we really certain how Bob feels about them either. Heslov manages to switch nicely between the earnest zaniness of the New Earth Army and some more realistic forms of warfare (a street fight over gas in Iraq feels particularly well-drawn), but his central thesis remains a mystery. In the end McGregor's character is done up to be the central purpose-- "You're the mission, Bob!" shouts Lyn-- but all along he's felt like a needless distraction from the real, funnier story about the New Earth guys. No amount of Clooney mugging or priceless Spacey glowering can fill in the gaps left by this meandering screenplay that, like the confused souls at its center, seems constantly in search of a purpose.