Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Movie Review: The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men
Directed by: George Clooney.
Written by: George Clooney & Grant Heslov based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter.
Starring: George Clooney (Frank Stokes), Matt Damon (James Granger), Bill Murray (Richard Campbell), Cate Blanchett (Claire Simone), John Goodman (Walter Garfield), Jean Dujardin (Jean Claude Clermont), Hugh Bonneville (Donald Jeffries), Bob Balaban (Preston Savitz), Dimitri Leonidas (Sam Epstein), Justus von Dohnányi (Viktor Stahl), Holger Handtke (Colonel Wegner).

After his first two films as a director, George Clooney looked like he could become another major actor-director – not unlike someone like Warren Beatty. Yet his last three films have all been somewhat lesser efforts – a little too safe, too unwilling to take much in the way of risks. His debut film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, may well be his best – the one where Clooney looked to be pushing himself, and although he apparently did not get along with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman – the result was a fascinating, funny exploration of a man who lied to make his life more interesting – and was also visually excellent. His follow-up – Good Night and Good Luck – looked great in black and white, and was a wonderful film about Edward R. Murrow’s fight with Joseph McCarthy – but already the signs were there that Clooney was more comfortable with straight ahead, safe dramas. With Leatherheads, he tried to make a screwball comedy – and it didn’t really work. The Ides of March was better than many gave it credit for – but it still felt like what it was – a filmed play with some great performances, and not much else. Now comes The Monuments Men – a WWII “men on a mission” movie which is the dullest film Clooney has made yet as a director. The film is agreeable for the most part – but not the least bit challenging, and it feel significantly longer than its two hour runtime. He’s got a great cast, but doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. He’s got a fascinating plot, but takes the safest route imaginable with it. In short, while The Monuments Men is hardly a bad movie, it’s something perhaps worse – completely forgettable.

Clooney stars in the film as Frank Stokes – an art professor who in the waning days of WWII wants to ensure that the culture of Europe – all the art, the buildings, etc – are protected and preserved. Hitler has been stealing art from everywhere the Nazis have gone – all in the hopes of starting his own, massive museum. He has also left orders that if Germany falls, all of it is to be destroyed. Stokes gets permission to assemble a team of men to try and prevent this from happening. It’s difficult, because the army doesn’t much care about it – which is understandable. They want to win the war, and lose as few men as possible. So Stokes is stuck assembling a team of men who otherwise would not be fighting at all – James Granger (Matt Damon), who has a weak heart. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Preston Savita (Bob Balaban) who would normally be too old. The same goes for Walter Garfield (John Goodman) – although his weight probably doesn’t help either. Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) is a Brit the get as their point man – and is a hopeless drunk. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) is a Frenchman with bad eyes. Eventually, they’ll enlist Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas) – a German Jew who fled to American 1938 – to be their driver. And Granger makes friends with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchatt) a French “collaborator”, who documented every piece of art that flowed through the museum she worked at in the hopes that eventually it could be tracked down and returned. This is what the Monuments Men want as well.

For a movie about war, The Monuments Men is mainly kind of dull – this is understandable in a way, because these men don’t see much actual fighting. They mainly come in behind the frontlines and try and identify, recover and ship out the art they find. It’s all kind of a puzzle, because the art doesn’t seem to be where they think it should be. For a movie about art however, The Monuments Men doesn’t seem to know too much about it. Stokes gives a good, impassioned speech about “preserving the foundation of Western culture” and the danger of destroying a people’s achievement as a way of exterminating the people themselves – but other than a few moments of awe when discussing a few pieces of art, the movie doesn’t seem very interested in that either. Worse still, Clooney has assembled a talented cast – but not given them much to do. You would think that teaming up Murray and Balaban – who share most of their scenes together – would be a surefire way to guarantee entertainment, but it really doesn’t work. Neither does teaming up Goodman and Dujardin – meaning when tragedy strikes the pair, it doesn’t have much of an impact. The best pairing is undeniably Damon and Blanchatt – who have a real chemistry together. Whenever they are on screen, the movie comes alive. Whenever they’re not, you wish they were.

The movie progresses pretty much precisely the way we expect it to – and ends happily enough (although the final scene in the movie is almost laughably sincere). As a director, Clooney doesn’t show all that much imagination – but he’s competent behind the camera. In front of it, he still has the same Clooney charm – although it’s a little subdued this time, as he is given most of the movie’s “big important” moments and speeches.

The Monuments Men is far from a horrible movie – but it is a movie that plays it far too safe to be truly good either. There doesn’t seem to be much at stake in the movie – and this is a film that needs that sense of danger and weight behind it. Instead, everything about the film feels inconsequential. We knew there were problems when it moved out the Oscar season at the last minute, so this shouldn’t be too surprising. But it’s still disappointing. If Clooney wants to be Warren Beatty, he’s got a long way to go.

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