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A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES

Clooney and company ham it up in The Men Who Stare at Goats

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On the basis of his rambunctious, side-splittingly funny comic performance in The Men Who Stare at Goats, George Clooney could become Hollywood's most indispensable and in-demand character actor. That is, if he wasn't already Tinseltown's premier leading man. As Lyn Cassady, a possibly insane, self-proclaimed Jedi Warrior in the U.S. military's stealth "remote-viewing" program, Clooney brings his steely intelligence and old-school charisma to a role that might have been virtually unplayable by another actor. Cassady's unbridled craziness is the very thing that makes him so seductive to a gullible, eager-beaver journalist (Ewan McGregor) hot on the trail of a rogue operative (Jeff Bridges' kookier-than-the-Dude Bill Django) in 2003 Kuwait. Cassady makes going postal seem like the sanest response to a demented situation.

But The Men Who Stare at Goats isn't a knee-jerk liberal polemic condemning the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Politics, in fact, is the least of its concerns. All director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan (adapting Jon Ronson's 2004 nonfiction book) want to do is make us laugh. And on that count they succeed — sometimes brilliantly. If the Coen Brothers had directed Three Kings, and if that brilliant 1999 Desert Storm black comedy had been written by Joseph Heller in full-throttle Catch-22 mode, it might have looked something like this.

Opening with a title card that reads, "More of this story is true than you would believe," Heslov almost dares you to take his shaggy-dog story at face value. Gleefully absurdist and littered with psychedelic flashbacks about the writing and military implementation of Django's "New Earth Army Manual," the film could have turned into a Clooney one-man show if the supporting cast hadn't been up to his rarefied standards.

In a welcome return to the snarky pedants he specialized in pre-American Beauty, Kevin Spacey gets laughs just by curling his upper lip and sneering into the camera. There's also great utility work from Stephen Root, Robert Patrick and Stephen Lang. Even the hit-or-miss McGregor seems genuinely engaged for a change. Maybe it was Straughan's pithy, pitch-perfect dialogue. Or perhaps he was energized by the live-wire actors flanking him. Since McGregor plays most of his scenes opposite Clooney, he probably knew it was sink-or-swim time.

film@clevescene.com

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