Most of the films George Clooney has directed — “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “The Ides of March” — have found him stretching himself, developing a style that was part indie edgy and part Hollywood classic, with a choice in topics that skewed liberal and humanistic.
His latest, “Monuments Men,” based on the real-life exploits of art experts who recovered masterpieces stolen by the Nazis, hits the Hollywood classic part perfectly. In fact it feels exactly as if it could have been made by a big studio in the early 1960s.
It’s been lushly produced, carefully scripted, tastefully shot. But edgy it isn’t. There’s hardly a moment here that doesn’t seem to have been painstakingly weighed and thought out in advance.
Clooney — with a trim ‘stache and graying temples that make him look remarkably like a mature Clark Gable — portrays Frank Stokes, an art expert who creates a unit within the U.S. Army with the sole purpose of tracking down and saving art masterpieces looted by the Germans.
He recruits a decidedly un-military bunch of art specialists, most of them pushing 60, who must undergo the rigors of basic training before they can be deployed to recently-liberated Normandy to begin their search.
There’s an art restorer (Matt Damon), an architect (Bill Murray), a French art specialist (Jean Dujardin), a Brit expert trying to make up for a shady past (“Downtwon Abbey’s” Hugh Bonneville), a monstrously-out-of-shape chap (John Goodman) and a seventyish sourpuss (Bob Balaban). Once on the ground they pick up a Jewish GI who speaks fluent German (Dimitri Leonidas).
There’s really only one female role here. Cate Blanchett plays a French “collaborator“ who infiltrated the German heirarchy on behalf of the Resistance. She knows where the stolen art may have been taken, but doesn’t trust the American liberators to do the right thing any more than she did the Nazis.
Part of the problem with the film — written by Clooney and his longtime collaborator Grant Heslov — is that it has no center.
The various experts are sent searching throughout France and Germany, and the film jumps back and forth between sub plots, allowing none to really kick in.
You can see why Clooney was drawn to the material — the idea of the Nazis as Teutonic vandals stealing culture just because they can, the notions of national identity that can be embodied in great works of art, and the question of whether a masterpiece is worth the extinguishing of even one human life.
But the film’s drama is so diffused that it’s hard to get into any of the characters — even Clooney’s. He’s the most watchable thing on the screen, and yet his is a performance in retreat. Maybe it’s too much to ask him to direct and star in the film.
Worse, when the film slows down for a big dramatic moment or speech, it’s just mawkish.
Well, it looks good, anyway.