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It’s not just the dregs of Hollywood that dropped into theaters in the first few months of the new year. Sometimes former Oscar hopefuls find their way into this fallow period as well.
And so it is with The Monuments Men, a once buzzed-about George Clooney directorial project he co-wrote and also stars in, along with a strong headlining cast: Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban.
The film is based on Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, itself a true account of a group of artists, art scholars, and museum curators recruited to join Allied forces near the end of World War II. Their mission was to locate, save, and return priceless artwork and important cultural artifacts stolen by the Nazis.
Clooney is Frank Stokes, the outfit’s leader who is determined to save the irreplaceable art for humanity’s sake, present and future. He’s also tasked with assembling the team.
He starts with longtime friend James Granger (Damon), a likable family man who happily signs up for the duty, despite the risks of traipsing through occupied Europe. The five other team members, thanks to a montage instead of lengthy character introductions, quickly join him.
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Richard Campbell (Murray) and Preston Savitz (Balaban) don’t like each other, though we have no idea why. Naturally, they’ll be paired on a mission that brings them together. Walter Garfield (Goodman) is the out-of-shape and reluctant soldier, British Donald Jeffries (Bonneville) is the alcoholic looking for another chance after a rather large mistake (again, we never learn his past misdeed that’s so awful he’s still haunted by it), and the French Jean Claude Clermont (Dujardin), who is grateful to the others for risking their lives to help him save his country’s artistic treasures.
These are all broad personalities and characters with little personal or memorable about them. Murray and Goodman, two of Hollywood’s biggest screen personalities, are rather vanilla in their plain-Jane roles. There’s no puckish Murray sensibility or hearty Goodman warmth written into in their characters, nor was there any apparent consideration for them to improvise their way into something more familiar and suitable. Other than Clooney and his handsome charm and Damon with his likable boy-next-door appeal, the rest of the cast could easily have been subbed out with almost any top-draw name and there would have been no discernible difference.
Meanwhile, the most well-developed character isn’t even on the team; Claire Simone (Blanchett) is a Parisian art expert forced to help the Nazis round-up local treasures, much of it stolen from Jews, shortly before the Allies retake Paris. Even after James secures her freedom after she was branded a Nazi sympathizer and jailed, she resists his pleas to help him recover the stolen art. She’s worried that the American museum curator is looking to pad the art collection of his museum and country. And for no other reason than Damon and Blanchett would make an attractive couple, there must be an onscreen attraction between their characters. Thankfully, the film’s attempt at international romance is quashed before it gets started.
Directed by George Clooney.
Written by Clooney and Grant Heslov, based on the Richard M. Edsel / Bret Witter book .
A Columbia / Fox release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ★★
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville.
In the course of the film, The Monuments Men, as the team is called, face danger, take risks, and confront tragedy — all of which steels their determination to finish their mission. But time isn’t their ally. As the Nazis lose their grip on Eastern Europe and hasten their retreat back to Germany, they’re gathering their stolen art collections from various countries and ferrying it to several hidden locations on a map Frank and his team have to decipher. Then they learn about Hitler’s direct order to his soldiers commanding them to destroy the stolen art if he is killed. If Der Fuher can’t have these Rembrandts, Picassos, Michelangelos, and more, then no one can.
But the dramatic high stakes leads to a crisis for the film. What, exactly, is the tone and purpose of The Monuments Men? Is it an entertaining all-star WWII adventure (The Guns of Navarone)? Perhaps it’s a somber reflection on the casualties of war, beyond the human toll or an ensemble WWII drama-comedy? The film can’t decide its thematic direction and neither, apparently, could Clooney. In one scene a homesick Richard, already tired of the war, stands teary-eyed in the shower as he listens to a special Christmas recording from his family, while a young soldier dies from a bullet wound as the team’s young German translator Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas) watches on. Not much later and the team is off on an adventure to save the art.
The indecisive course plagues the film. One minute you settle in for a rollicking action film, the next you’re reminded of Nazi wartime atrocities. There are tense battle sequences and somber respects to fallen comrades, easy laughs and dramatic dialogue. Yet there’s never a kiss.
While war-time romance apparently has no place in The Monuments Men, it would appear that almost everything else does.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.