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George Clooney's war spoof could have been funnier

 Actor George Clooney poses for photographers during a red carpet for the premiere of the movie
Actor George Clooney poses for photographers during a red carpet for the premiere of the movie 'The Men Who Stare At Goats' at the 66th Venice Film Festival September 8, 2009. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
— image credit: Reuters

By Deborah Young

VENICE (Hollywood Reporter) - "Good Night, and Good Luck" director George Clooney and screenwriter Grant Heslov team up again in Heslov's feature directing bow, a wild spoof on the U.S. Army research's into psychic phenomena and attempt to use same in its wars from Vietnam to Iraq.

An anti-Army comedy starring Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey should have been funnier than this, but even if "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is not worth comparing to "Dr. Strangelove," it should satisfy audiences with its great cast and patent absurdities, coated in quaint nostalgia for the happy hippie days of yore.

The Overture Films release, screening out of competition at Venice, opens November 6 in North America.

Bob Wilton (McGregor) is a young, not very bright reporter from Ann Arbor who signs on to cover the Iraq War. In Kuwait City he meets the enigmatic Lyn Cassady (an attractively aged Clooney), who surprisingly confides that he was once part of a select Army team of warrior monks called the Jedi, psychic spies trained to use paranormal powers against the country's enemies. Flash back to Vietnam in 1972, where we meet Bill Django (Bridges), founder of the New Earth Army, a special Army unit trained to dance, express their feelings, and let it all hang out. Their experiments yield dubious results, apart from revealing the young Cassady's extraordinary gifts for "remote viewing," aka ESP. His psychic abilities rouse the envy of Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), an ambitious newcomer to the group who eventually takes it over, after he gets Django kicked out in disgrace.

Back to 2003: Reporter Bob and psychic Cassady set off together across the Kuwait border into Iraq, where they are immediately kidnapped and sold to another group. After various adventures they end up in a secret training camp in the middle of the desert, where Hooper is running a lab of even more loopy experiments, aided by his former boss Django, now a spaced-out alcoholic. A delirious finale closes the film on an upbeat note.

Peter Straughan's screenplay is based on a nonfiction book by Jon Ronson about the government and the paranormal. With material like this, one would have liked a more incisive comedy to materialize around the decline and fall of the New Age movement. "None of it was real," says one character, citing the cliche; "the dark side took the dream and twisted it." Cassady blames it all on a "curse" he inadvertently acquired during an experiment in which he stared at a goat until its heart stopped beating. The scene in which he does this, like numerous other gags in the film, is quick, funny and gets a good laugh, without going beyond.

The unflappable Clooney and Bridges, wearing waist-length hair and hippie garb, show a cool aplomb that gives some kind of limited dignity to their ridiculous characters and antiquated beliefs; as he watches them rise into the sky in a helicopter, high on LSD, the straight man and narrator McGregor respectfully calls them "shaman." Spacey, who appears in a handful of scenes, has but to bat his eyes balefully to convince as a walk-on villain.

(Editing by DGoodman at Reuters)

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