Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney has been in the director's chair five times now; I'm still waiting for the sort of artistry demonstrated by those with whom he's collaborated. Examine his resume: films by the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, Terrence Malick. I guess it's unfair to expect Clooney to match their talents, to compose masterworks that were inspired by his luminaries. Maybe I'm expecting some of their skill to rub off on him?

Clooney has good taste. In many things, I'll assume, but certainly film. In addition to projects with the aforementioned he has produced movies like ARGO. He directed one rather ambitious episode of ER, the television series that made him a household name in the 1990s. It was natural that he would want to lift the bullhorn at some point in his career, but the results have been distressingly mild thus far. That good taste selected the Chuck Barris bio CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, the Edward R. Murrow remembrance GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, the screwball era throwback LEATHERHEADS, and the political drama THE IDES OF MARCH, but each fell short of greatness (far from in some cases). For the most part, the material (or at least the premise) was there, but the execution just wasn't.

Maybe Clooney just doesn't "have it"? That elusive, sometimes unquantifiable "it" than separates the auteurs from the also-rans.  His decisions about pacing, edits, and shot compositions are consistently pedestrian. Unlike that of his director peers, his cinematic sense seems to be left wanting, forced. We've seen this when other creative types, so fluid in their respective crafts, try their hand at directing. How many actors can you name who've tried and failed? Even Joan Rivers attempted once.  But there are those who, despite their failures and mediocrities,  keep getting director gigs, like gifted cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who I just never felt "had it."

Now Clooney helms this year's THE MONUMENTS MEN, another great idea for a feature that receives middling treatment. This time, Clooney oversees an attempt at old Hollywood magic that instead comes off like a lesser, innocuous Disney movie. This is good news for those viewers who are easily offended, who only watch movies sans "offensive" content. Bad news for those who were hoping for a proper memorial for a group of brave souls who truly believed that artworks confiscated by the Nazis during WW II were worth saving, as they were worth far more than their intrinsic or market value. They represented peoples' lives.

I'm not saying that the right treatment of this subject needed to be a grim, violent two hours of postmodern darkness. We have enough of that these days. But surely the true story of a disparate group of architects, curators, and historians who are recruited to recover stolen paintings and sculptures such as Michelangelo's "Madonna and Child" from castles and hidden mines throughout Europe has to be more interesting than what Clooney and Grant Heslov's script depicts. This story is one of many intriguing WW II threads that hasn't really been explored in theatrical features, and how Clooney could take such fascinating events and make them plodding and unbelievable is a mystery.

After a nod of approval from FDR, Stokes (Clooney) assembles - in a manner that may remind you of the OCEANS films - the motley crew: Granger (Matt Damon), Campbell (Bill Murray), Garfield (John Goodman), Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) to ferret out the absconded treasures. None are soldiers.  Things get dangerous. A few of the men lose their lives. Is the art really worth dying for? Stokes changes his mind on that issue. But this mission is a noble cause, an effort to preserve and restore a way of life (to say nothing of history) that the Germans sought to strip from the Allies. You could argue the point.

The tone of the film is mostly in a lighter vein. Granger, ordered to Paris, speaks a broken French that annoys his contacts enough that they tell him to just speak English (this is one of the few humorous elements that works, complete with subtitles). He also finds himself atop a landmine in a scene that reminded me of LETHAL WEAPON 2, the comic suspense built when Danny Glover realizes he is sitting on a toilet strapped to dynamite. Campbell and Savitz bicker like schoolkids; their and most of the film's other jokes are cornball. Murray is really wasted here, but honestly, so is everyone.

THE MONUMENTS MEN is just too episodic and disconnected to work, to sustain interest. Clooney's direction might be described as indifferent. In his favor - beautiful vistas and locations (D.P. Phedon Papamichael shoots postcards) on which to work, to say nothing of that great cast that also includes Cate Blanchette as a Parisian curator who eventually assists the men. The screenplay manages to make many of the scenarios implausible, particularly a climatic race against the Russians to retrieve pieces from an Austrian mine, soon to be part of a Soviet occupation zone.

Clooney's film is warm and cozy and may be just your ticket if you're not in the mood to be challenged or emotionally browbeaten. If nothing else, perhaps disappointed viewers will seek out a book or two on the subject.

No comments: