Monday, February 10, 2014

In Theaters: THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)

(US/UK/Germany - 2014)

Directed by George Clooney.  Written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov.  Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Justus von Dohnanyi, Holger Handtke, Zahary Baharov, Sam Hazeldine. (PG-13, 118 mins)

For all of George Clooney's fame and tabloid ubiquity over the last 20 years, he hasn't been in a lot of box office blockbusters other than the THE PERFECT STORM, OCEAN'S ELEVEN films and GRAVITY.  He's largely chosen quality scripts over easy star vehicles (OUT OF SIGHT, SYRIANA, MICHAEL CLAYTON, UP IN THE AIR), isn't afraid to go for non-commercial material (SOLARIS, THE GOOD GERMAN, THE AMERICAN) and with his matinee idol looks, he's often described as a throwback to the Hollywood of old, a sort-of Cary Grant for today's cinema.  For the most part, his directorial career also seems rooted in the past:  CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002) was an adaptation of GONG SHOW host Chuck Barris' improbable memoirs,  GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (2005) chronicled CBS News icon Edward R. Murrow and his battle against the McCarthy hearings,  LEATHERHEADS (2008) was a screwball romantic comedy set in the world of 1920s football, and THE IDES OF MARCH (2011) was a thriller set in the scheming world of present-day politics but nevertheless felt like the kind of movie Alan J. Pakula, Sidney Lumet, or Sydney Pollack would've made in the 1970s.  Clooney has more than established his bona fides as an actor and director, and the WWII epic THE MONUMENTS MEN, with its motley crew of unlikely heroes going into battle, is cut from the same cloth as the grand, large-scale men-on-a-mission classics of the 1960s, like THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), THE TRAIN (1964), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), and KELLY'S HEROES (1970) to name just four.

The difference here is that those films didn't have a soapbox to stand on, and if Clooney has a weakness as a filmmaker, it's the need to endlessly speechify with issues of Grand Importance.  I enjoyed the relatively light LEATHERHEADS and the conspiratorial suspense of THE IDES OF MARCH, but I found GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK a little too smug and self-satisfied, regardless of how remarkable David Strathairn was as Murrow.  Every scene seemed to have someone stopping to mention how what they were doing was Changing the World, and some of that comes into play with THE MONUMENTS MEN.  There seems to be no momentum that Clooney the director won't halt in order to allow Clooney the actor one more chance to deliver a windy treatise on The Importance of Art and how they're Preserving History.  The constant invocations start to grow wearying after a while and it doesn't help that Clooney can't seem to settle on what kind of WWII movie he wanted to make.  Is it lighthearted?  Is it a serious memorial to the Greatest Generation?  Is it a comedy?  Is it transparent Oscar bait?  Yes.  It's all of those.

Inspired by a true story, THE MONUMENTS MEN is set in the final months of Hitler's reign before Germany's surrender.  With word that Der Fuhrer has gathered and stored massive art collections pilfered during the Nazi takeover of Europe, renowned art professor Frank Stokes (Clooney) pleads with FDR to put together a team of art experts and historians to go through the war-torn areas of Europe to salvage and protect the remaining art and recover what's gone missing.  This means putting together the usual ragtag group of Unlikely Heroes:  Stokes' old friend James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), art experts Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), plus a bonus recruit in German-speaking Jersey-based private Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas).  Damon's Granger spends most of the film on his own separate mission, investigating some missing French art with curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who's been keeping a log of art stolen by her scheming, Nazi-aligned boss (Justus von Dohnanyi).  For about 40 minutes or so, THE MONUMENTS MEN is moving along nicely enough, coasting on the screen presence of its stars and the no-expense-spared production design, but there's a scene with Damon and Blanchett that's so tone-deaf and wrong-headed that you can actually see the film fall on its face and consequently spend the remainder of its running time trying to regain its footing. 

Claire takes Granger to a vast and seemingly endless warehouse packed with paintings, furniture, glasses, dishes, books, etc.  Granger looks around in wide-eyed wonder.

Granger: "What is all of this?"
Claire: "People's lives."
Granger: "What people?"
Claire: "Jews."

At that moment, Alexandre Desplat's maudlin, manipulative score swells and Granger's sense of wonder sinks with the saddened realization that...the Holocaust was happening?  What does he mean "What people?" Where does he think all this stuff came from?  How pie-in-the-sky naïve can he be?  There had to be a more effective way to convey the horror of concentration camps than making Damon's character look like an idiot.

There's also little sense of camaraderie between the Monuments Men.  Clooney and Damon get the bulk of the screen time, with the rest relegated to the sidelines.  Sure, Murray, Goodman, and the others are onscreen a lot, but they're just there, and not really given characters to play.  Campbell playfully busts Savitz's chops throughout, but they have no other defining characteristics that necessitated them being played by distinctive actors like Murray and Balaban.  It's nice to see all these actors working together and there's no doubt they had a good time, but why put Murray, Balaban, and John Goodman together to have them play cardboard characters that anybody could've played?   Murray's big scene involves playing a record sent from home with his granddaughter singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as tears well in his eyes.  Given the context, it's not a revealing character moment but instead comes off as the kind of cheap, heavy-handed melodrama that someone as sharp as Murray can't possibly be taking seriously.

THE MONUMENTS MEN is passable and it's never boring, but it just misses the mark. Films of this sort had a sense of fun and adventure that this is sorely lacking. They can make big statements without advertising that they're Big Statements.  Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov seem to be in such a mad rush to get to the lecturing and the pontificating that they don't bother establishing anything with the characters.  Other than a scene where Campbell and Savitz get the edge on a Nazi art thief, there's rarely a sense of danger or even where they're really at.  There's a lot of looking at maps and saying "We have to go here," but it never really registers.  They just go from one place to another, Stokes says something like "We're Doing Something Important!" and they find some stashed art, stare at it as Desplat's score tells us to how to feel, and they move on.  It looks like a classic WWII movie that belongs on TCM, but in the end, it's just pretending to be one.  This was originally scheduled to be released in December 2013, but was abruptly yanked to "finish the visual effects," with the date bounced to the barren wasteland of February.  That may be the case, as the film looks superb, but it's hard to ignore the sneaking suspicion that this wasn't the automatic Oscar magnet that Sony and Clooney were hoping it would be.

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