Monday, February 10, 2014
The Monuments Men
The Monuments Men
Dir. George Clooney
2.5 out of 5
When big-name actors transition into the director's chair, over time they tend to reveal personal sensibilities that cut against the grain of their famous onscreen personae - think of Clint Eastwood's hardness melting into empathy for the discarded and downtrodden, or Robert Redford's slickness masking an affinity for social justice. Five films into his directorial career, George Clooney is still an enigma. His latest effort, the ensemble war picture The Monuments Men, reaffirms his fondness for the polish, glamour, and moral earnestness of old Hollywood while continuing his romp through the most popular genres of bygone eras. (Screwball comedy? Check. Political thriller? Check. Stoic black-and-white biopic? Check.) What remains clear is that Clooney, perhaps the last of the old-fashioned movie stars, genuinely enjoys old-fashioned movies.
Based on a true story, The Monuments Men centers around a special military unit created in the waning months of World War II tasked with identifying valuable works of art and protecting them from destruction during the Allied march to Berlin. What begins as an academic enterprise quickly turns into a treasure hunt for professor-turned-soldier Frank Stokes (Clooney) and his handpicked, multinational team of art experts. Together, they must become crack detectives and espionage agents as they search for the stolen artworks squirreled away by the retreating Nazis.
Split between solemn reverence and arch humor, the film struggles to find an appropriate balance. It's both overlong and not comprehensive enough, shunting its characters off into self-contained adventures that blend lighthearted character antics with periodic bursts of violence. The former is not a problem for the heavy-hitting cast full of stellar comic actors like Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Jean Dujardin, but the film's divide-and-conquer strategy prevents Clooney from establishing a consistent tone. Likewise, the staccato narrative framework often pulls away from promising plot threads before they're given a chance to develop. (The best subplot, involving Cate Blanchett as a French art scholar and reluctant Nazi collaborator who redeems herself by aiding Stokes' men, feels particularly slighted by the movie's structure.)
To be fair, Clooney bravely devotes a good chuck of screentime to oddball hijinks in a movie that could've easily been another warmed-over pastiche of war movie clichés. The cast also has a genuine camaraderie that adds to the drama of the chase. Still, there's something distastefully self-flattering about his slick and uncomplicated portrayal of this intriguing slice of the wartime experience. The Monuments Men makes a misguided effort to engage with star power, which unfortunately makes the film appear glib and insensitive in light of the real sacrifices it portrays. It's a confident film that radiates charm and idealism but makes you wonder what else is going on beneath that glossy surface.