There's an irony at the heart of George Clooney's latest directorial assignment. The Monuments Men is a tale that purports to explain why we should care about art, culture and history in a society that seems to care exclusively about the short-term, and why we should take good care of it, but it does it in such a breezy, happy-go-lucky, artless throwaway manner that it kind of self-defeats. But what if that really wasn't its purpose? What if Mr. Clooney, working from Robert Edsel's true-life book about a small band of Allied art specialists drafted to help protect European treasures from the Nazi during WWII, never really wanted to make anything other than an old-fashioned war movie, a smart Boy's Own adventure for audiences tired of cynicism and looking for some wholesome good-vs.-evil entertainment?

     Nice job if you can get it both ways, but despite the attempt Mr. Clooney, also scripting, producing and acting, fails to get there. The Monuments Men becomes a sort of Ocean's Eleven wannabe set in WWII, as museum director Frank Stokes (Mr. Clooney) pulls together a half-dozen connoisseurs to travel war-torn Europe searching for art stolen by the Nazis in order to return it. The juxtaposition between the seriousness of the subject - underlined by the revelation of a treasure trove of stolen art in Munich just as the film was in post-production - and the light-heartedness of the caper movie format never really works; the result turns out to be strangely muted, musty and sleepy, lacking the enthusiasm and flair that the script's constant (but somewhat flat) attempts at "rat pack" banter aim for.

     The film eventually resolves itself in a series of handsome but loosely threaded vignettes that more often than not give its all-star cast very little to do except parade their star wattage; the obvious observation is that Mr. Clooney is no Steven Soderbergh, even though The Monuments Men pretty much seems to be the sort of film that director would do in a heartbeat. But, in fact, Mr. Clooney's best films as director (Good Night, and Good Luck. or The Ides of March) were disenchanted ensemble pieces on serious subjects and every time he has attempted something lighter (cue his period football comedy Leatherheads) the outcome is less impressive. Maybe he is just too serious a filmmaker to actually feel at ease in the sort of lightweight adventure his suave screen persona as an actor seems tailor-made for, since he fails to find the tone that would carry The Monuments Men from the instantly disposable, half-hearted ho-hum war adventure it is into a modern-day equivalent of Kelly's Heroes or The Dirty Dozen.

Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Cate Blanchett
Director: Mr. Clooney
Screenwriters: Mr. Clooney, Grant Heslov, from the book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, The Monuments Men
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael (colour, widescreen)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Jim Bissell
Costumes: Louise Frogley
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Visual effects: Angus Bickerton
Producers: Mr. Heslov, Mr. Clooney  (Fox 2000 Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Smokehouse Pictures, Obelisk Productions and Studio Babelsberg in association with TSG Entertainment)
USA/United Kingdom/Germany, 2014, 118 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2014 official selection out-of-competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast, Berlin, February 9th 2014


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