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11/06/2009

Clooney loony in failed military dramedy

Invest in "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and you'll spend most of your time staring at a dog; a dog of the week.

George Clooney's first starring vehicle of the fall/winter movie season falls flatter than a poorly prepared pancake.  Take heart, though, Clooney fans.  "Up In the Air," Clooney's other '09 entry opening next month, is funny, insightful and pretty much perfect.

But first this offbeat hippie-dippy military intelligence tale that opens with, "More of this is true than you would believe."

Fine.  I only wish more of it was funny, or clever or intriguing enough to hold an audience's attention.

Clooney may have second thoughts about handing off the directing reins for "Goats" to Grant Heslov, Clooney's producing/writing partner in Smokehouse Productions.

I'm not sure anyone could turn Jon Ronson's non-fiction best seller of paranormal activity, "The Men Who Stare at Goats," into anything resembling mainstream movie entertainment.  Rambling and mind-numbing boring most of the time, it follows an Ann Arbor, Mich. newspaper reporter (Ewan McGregor) as he follows former military intelligence guy (Clooney) into Iraq on a bumbling secret mission in 2003.

As this disappointing movie experience slowly revealed itself to be the waste of time it is, I couldn't help thinking of some military comic satires that got it right:  "Dr. Strangelove," of course.  But there's also Robert Altman's big-screen version of "M*A*S*H" and, more recently, "Wag the Dog."  

Clooney has been to Iraq before on the big screen.  He was following a map in search of gold shortly after the first Gulf War in David O. Russell's "Three Kings" of 1999.  Clooney's Lyn Cassady, a shadowy figure who can stare a goat to death, has no clue where he's headed this time.

That's strange since the shining star of an experimental U.S. military unit -- a unit of hippies, really -- led by "shaman" Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, who deserves better) can bust up clouds just by staring at them.

As Clooney and McGregor (as reporter Bob Wilton) wander the Iraqi sands (actually, New Mexico), they encounter key figures in a puzzle without plausibility or sustained interest.  Sadly, Heslov shows no reason why he should hop into a director's chair again anytime soon.

The director even fails to seize an opportunity for an easy laugh.  Clooney's New Age mental soldiers are referred to as Jedi Warriors.  Since McGregor played Jedi Warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi in three "Star Wars" prequels, why not a little wink-at-the-audience fun?

Kevin Spacey, a two-time Oscar winner ("American Beauty," "The Usual Suspects"), takes on renegade psychic Larry Hooper, while Robert Patrick ("Balls of Fury," "Terminator 2"), the nicest cinematic bad guy you'll ever meet, smiles while a firefight erupts around him.

These actors, from Clooney on down, are all near-death wanderers in the desert.  Water would be nice, but the only thing that can really save them is a coherent script.  That never pops up.

Not even as a mirage.

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