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Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 12:01 am

Monuments Men missing momentum

George Clooney as Frank Stokes

 

George Clooney’s The Monuments Men has the sort of pedigree that Oscar winners are made of. What with an all-star cast, including former Academy Awards recipients Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin (as well as Clooney) and Bill Murray, John Goodman and Bob Balaban, as well as a subject matter that members of the Academy love to embrace, this looked like a surefire winner when the production was announced. Columbia Pictures, which produced Men, was so confident they had a contender on their hands they had slated the film for a Christmas Day release so that it would be eligible for the awards being presented for 2013. However, when Clooney informed Columbia that he wouldn’t be able to meet this deadline and insisted it be released in 2014, this was the first indication that perhaps Men wasn’t going to live up to expectations.

It’s not that Men is a bad film, it’s just merely a lackluster effort that despite all of the talent involved lacks a sense of urgency or energy. Making this minor misfire all the more curious is that its subject is a fascinating one, a little known story about a small unit of men who are charged with saving millions of pieces of plundered art, which happens to be spread throughout France and Germany as World War II winds down. Based on a highly readable historical tome by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, the film does a wonderful job of capturing the look and feel of the era, going to great lengths to ensure that the clothes, décor and food are all just right. However, ultimately its disjointed and overreaching script lead to its downfall.

Clooney is art historian Frank Stokes who, when we first see him, is giving a presentation to FDR, imploring him to take steps to find and protect the many, many pieces of priceless art that they know have been stolen throughout Europe. The president follows his advice and before you know it, Stokes is in charge of a diverse group of men whose mission sometimes runs counter to that of units made up of infantrymen. Included are Americans James Granger (Damon), Richard Campbell (Murray), Walter Garfield (Goodman) and Preston Savitz (Balaban), as well as Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Dujardin) and Brit Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville). All have their area of specialty, whether it be architecture, restoration or art history, and each of their back stories are mentioned, barely filled in and in dire need of greater detail.

Once the men hit the ground – arriving in France on the beaches of Normandy some weeks after the D-Day invasion – what ensues is a rather odd Dirty Half-Dozen adventure in which the group is split up into pairs and sent off to various parts of France to track down leads as to where paintings, pieces of sculpture and holy artifacts may be hidden. All the while, Granger is in Paris where he’s been told to make contact with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a curator who worked for one of the Nazi soldiers in charge of moving pieces out of the country. She may have key bits of information that can help Stokes and his crew.

The film never really works up a head of steam and surprisingly Clooney has a hard time juggling the various storylines that play out. There’s a sense that none of them are developed fully and much time is wasted on scenes that add nothing to the story. A sequence that finds Campbell and Savitz trapped by a nervous young Nazi soldier is slightly humorous but tells us nothing about the characters we don’t already know, while a scene in which Garfield and Clermont have to neutralize a sniper contains a bit of a surprise, but it too is superfluous. A few more moments like this are sprinkled throughout and they hobble the film, preventing it from engaging us as it should.

It comes as no surprise that the cast assembled is a delight to watch, with the chemistry between Goodman and Dujardin being one of the most pleasant aspects of the movie. However, fine actors, top-notch production values and a great story aren’t enough where The Monuments Men are concerned. Clooney’s inability to find the proper pacing, as well as a way to develop its various storylines effectively, leaves us with a history lesson that doesn’t necessarily put us to sleep but surely doesn’t impel us to learn more about its subject.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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