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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review: The Monuments Men (2014)

* * *

Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett

Had The Monuments Men been released in December as planned I probably would have found myself massively disappointed by it, as the annual year end glut of great and would-be great movies tends to set expectations fairly high. But with the film pushed out of the prestige period and into the cinematic no-man's land that is February, accompanied by reviews that can best be described as "tepid," my expectations were naturally and appropriately lowered, and as a result I found the film rather enjoyable. That's not to say that it's without its flaws - they're there and they're fairly prominent - but I think that The Monuments Men is better than its reputation suggests.

Set in the waning months of World War II, The Monuments Men is about a group of seven men - Americans Frank Stokes (George Clooney), James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), Brit Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) - assembled to try to protect European monuments which might otherwise be obliterated in the fighting, and find and retrieve works of art stolen by the Nazis. With so much ground to cover, the team quickly splits into smaller groups, with Campbell and Savitz sent in one direction, Garfield and Clermont in another, Jeffries heading solo to Bruges, Stokes teaming up with Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a young Army private whose family fled Germany before the onset of the war, and Granger heading to Paris, where he begins trying to gain the trust of Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a curator whose tireless cataloging of works of art taken by the Nazis during the Occupation will prove to be invaluable.

The film proceeds as a series of vignettes, with each pairing having various adventures, some of which are light-hearted, others of which are deadly serious. Eventually, and after losing two of their number, what remains of the group is reunited as they attempt to figure out where the fleeing Nazis have hidden away the art works, knowing that time is running out as a result of Hitler's Nero Decree, which dictated the destruction of everything to keep it out of the hands of the Allies. However, even after the team figures out where the art works have been hidden, a new problem emerges: the Soviets, quickly sweeping in from the East, have adopted a policy of seizing the stolen art work they find in order to take them back to the USSR as "reparations." As the Monuments Men close in on the pieces which they deem the most important - and, in one case, a piece that resulted in the death of one of their own - they have to race against the Soviet team dispatched for the same purpose.

The Monuments Men is, in many respects, an old fashioned movie, one which relies on the audience's familiarity with certain tropes and character types. When this works, it works rather well, with scenes unfolding in a way that feels relaxed and unforced, focusing largely on characterization rather than plot and taking an attitude that can probably best be described as "jaunty," so light can the film be on its feet. Had Clooney and company had the confidence to tell their whole story in this fashion the film may have worked better, but since we're in an age where we seem to demand gritty realism in films with serious subject matters (and what could be more serious than war?), The Monuments Men takes several turns in that direction which results in the film being constantly knocked off its tonal axis. As written, the film just doesn't have the dramatic foundation for a lot of the most serious moments it tries to pull off, leaving some scenes feeling heavy handed and superficial, and with the narrative split into so many pieces there are also things which feel underdeveloped. The biggest offender in that regard is the relationship between Granger and Claire, which shifts abruptly towards the end of the second act and made me think of that scene from Sullivan's Travels when Sullivan is trying to explain his grand intentions for his next film and the studio executive keeps insisting that there be "a little sex in it." The development between Granger and Claire doesn't really do anything for the film except give the suggestion of sex simply for the sake of it.

It's apparent from the many speeches that Clooney intones through the course of the film that The Monuments Men is meant to be a grand statement on the importance of art and culture to the survival of society, but while it never reaches the lofty goals it has set for itself, I'm hard pressed to characterize the film as a failure. What works in the film works well - the pairings of Goodman/Dujarin and Murray/Balaban bring the film many of its best moments, whether it's the former team facing down a sniper whose identity comes as a surprise to them, or the latter team coming across some of the purloined art by chance - and the performances are uniformly good. The Monuments Men is nowhere near a masterpiece, and certainly not as rich as its subject matter deserves (for a more thorough account of the story, I highly recommend the 2006 documentary The Rape of Europa), but as a work of entertainment, I think the film ultimately (even if only barely) succeeds.

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