Directed by: George Clooney; Runtime: 118 minutes
Two trailers were put out for The Monuments Men prior to its projected December 2013 theatrical release, and they probably should've been a clearer indication that it might suffer from an identity crisis. The first offered a taste of playful comedy and the incredibly robust cast in what looked a little like Danny Ocean gathering soldiers in World War II to protect and collect artwork, while the second took a far more serious and somber attitude about the intensity of war and the importance of preserving culture. Switching tones so drastically either reveals that they wanted to emphasize both sides of George Clooney's film for posterity, or they didn't really know how to accurately represent the breadth of the material. After seeing the final product, it's clear that Clooney cranked out something that doesn't really know what it wants to be: it blends an air of lightheartedness with even-tempered drama and intermittent action that, as a whole, ends up being a dull, schmaltzy slog through a fascinating true story of Hitler's agenda and the unlikely heroes who thwarted a peculiar part of it.
As Allied forces continue their success in driving Axis powers out of occupied countries in Europe, Lt. Frank Stokes (Clooney) presents a concern and solution to the President of United States: that artwork, buildings, and other items significant to cultural preservation need to be protected and reclaimed from the Axis powers during operations, and that a group of soldiers should take on the task. With most younger, capable soldiers with those academic qualifications already on the battlefield, Stokes gathers together a group of seven experts -- scholars, architects, and other curators with no military experience -- and sets out to locate and retrieve the pieces under their Monuments Men banner. A key piece of their puzzle is a former museum curator in Occupied Paris, Claire Simon (Cate Blanchett), who watched many of the pieces get distributed among the Nazis, sought out by Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon) in hopes that she'll reveal information about their whereabouts.
The Monuments Men break apart into smaller groups to locate items or people, giving the film its shape through stitched-together, episodic clusters: the hunt for the panels of the Ghent altarpiece, Donald Jeffries' (Hugh Bonneville) personal agenda to protect Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges, accidentally finding the man in charge of distributing artwork for the Nazis, and the rush to decode a suggestive map's markers. Based on the nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel, the story seems fascinating enough that it'd essentially tell itself under the helm of any director, but Clooney takes a dated, featureless approach that halfheartedly folds together humorous and wartime drama characteristics into a perplexingly light depiction. He doesn't add much to the story, in essence filtering the dynamic present in the Ocean's Eleven films -- gather experts, pinpoint high-profile targets, execute plans and respond to the stumbles -- through the easygoing attitude that hallmarked his previous "historical" comedy, Leatherheads. Where that one musters charm, this one deflates a seemingly undeflatable tale.
The result is a drawn-out, frequently unexciting portrayal of WWII despite being meticulously built with similar production values of other war epics, aided little by the stellar cast that fails to shape themselves into distinctive characters, limiting their appeal to their inherent personal charisma. This method, a frequently-used one in ensemble war dramas, works for some: Hugh Bonneville restrains his Downton Abbey persona into a redemption-seeking alcoholic in Donald Jeffries, while The Artist's Jean Dujardin's appreciative charm as a foreigner among a mostly-American troop can be infectious. While it's almost impossible for this set of actors to deliver out-of-tune performances, the rest -- Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Clooney himself -- allow their characters to atypically fade into the crumbled, smoky architecture and dimly-lit tents. All signs point to that being a deliberate decision in the direction, revealing insecurity in how to handle the emotional tenor of the time and place. The emotional weight of deaths awkwardly contrasts with humorous stories of stepping on active landmines, calming down a German soldier, and wandering unaware through a live battlefield. Though, admittedly, the running gag about Matt Damon's character not speaking very good French can be pretty amusing.
In fact, as one can expect from the director of Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March, The Monuments Men is at its best when it abandons its comedic inclinations and goes for the throat of this unlikely troop's endeavors through the atrocities of war. Seeing a bucket full of golden teeth and the crumbled frame of a destroyed Picasso, along with Cate Blanchett's standoffish and traumatized curator deciding to aid the troop, reveal flashes of the tighter, expressive film that Clooney could've concocted of this inherently absorbing story. These assured moments are few and far between, though, fighting against wishy-washy humor and a merely serviceable grasp on the importance of artwork as it accelerates towards the end of the war, a rush against Hitler's Nero Decree and the Russians gathering their rightful spoils of war. It's the kind of movie that shines a light on lesser-known elements of history and makes someone want to seek out the truth underneath the fiction, while ultimately looking back at the film as a perfunctory, stilted footnote of a treasure heist / adventure that needed to dig much deeper.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 5/22/2014