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MOVIES: Heslov too tentative with 'The Men Who Stare at Goats'

Special Photo: Overture Films. George Clooney stars in "The Men who Stare at Goats."

Special Photo: Overture Films. George Clooney stars in "The Men who Stare at Goats."

The Men Who Stare at Goats (R)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

There are few movie sub-genres as sparsely populated as the anti-war black comedy, and for good reason. Not many people are fond of war to begin with, and most mainstream audiences don't get (or want to get) black comedy.

It takes a seasoned, steady hand and a concise vision to correctly make this kind of movie. Third-time director Grant Heslov gets a good deal right, but it's clear this movie is the product of a tentative filmmaker who is not fully comfortable with this type of material.

Heslov's biggest coup was casting three brilliant actors who aren't afraid to look silly, vain or incompetent. The story's principal stooge is Lyn Cassady, played with gonzo gusto by Heslov's "Good Night and Good Luck" collaborator George Clooney.

In Iraq during the first Gulf War, Cassady tells the green, story hungry journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) that he's a covert "Jedi" warrior who received top-secret training in the ways of psychic warfare. According to Cassady, he can destroy minds, dissipate cloud cover and kill goats with his focused, steely stare.

Because Cassady is so sure of his "powers" and delivers such a convincing back story, Wilton -- looking for anything to distract him from his failed marriage -- buys into the mystique. It might be the whole cloth ranting of a lunatic, but Wilton doesn't care; he needs some juicy copy.

Cassady developed his skills in the late '70s under the watchful eye of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam vet straight arrow whose brush with mortality turned him into a cosmic spiritualist. He's OK with war as long as, you know, it's not messy. Django is a slightly more focused version of Bridge's Dude character from "The Big Lebowski" who is entirely sure his team of loopy clairvoyants can do a better job fighting the enemy than traditional bombs and bullets.

Undergoing basic training at the same time as Cassady is Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a snooty, full-of-himself type who immediately alienates everyone, Cassady in particular. Hooper is sharp, but being the smartest guy in a room full of idiosyncratic eccentrics with questionable mental capacity doesn't count for much and this slighting triggers Hooper's long-running slow burn.

In adapting Jon Ronson's book, screenwriter Peter Straughan focuses more on specific events than general attitude and the result is a series of largely disconnected skits. Every scene delivers at least one memorable line or joke but most of them go on far longer than they should. It's a hurry-up-and-wait kind of movie that circles in the air without ever landing. You keep hoping for something substantial to happen but nothing ever does.

If you're in the market for something like this but only better, check out any or all of the following on DVD: "M*A*S*H," "Catch-22," the original "Fail Safe," "The Lord of War," "Buffalo Soldiers," "Dr. Strangelove," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Three Kings," which also stars Clooney.

Heslov has enough talent to be a good, if not great director, but first he has to search for material that will suit his particular level of talent. As Dirty Harry so eloquently put it, "a man's got to know his limitations." (Overture)