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With: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, Dimitri Leonidas
Written by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, based on a book by Robert M. Edsel, Bret Witter
Directed by: George Clooney
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking
Running Time: 118
Date: 02/07/2014

The Monuments Men (2014)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Straight from the Art

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

George Clooney's fifth directorial outing, The Monuments Men, was pulled from its awards season release so that its editing would not have to be rushed. And indeed, the final product feels pretty relaxed... perhaps a bit too relaxed. Maybe some rushing would have helped.

The movie looks as if Clooney assembled some of his buddies and shot a few scenes willy-nilly. Nothing ever looks real, and the story never gains dramatic momentum. But the qualities it does have serve to make it a passable adult entertainment.

Based on a book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, The Monuments Men tells one of those untold stories of WWII. It turns out that Hitler was an appreciator of art; he planned to steal every great work of art he could get his hands on, and open one huge, uber-museum. Unfortunately, if the Nazis lost, his contingency plan was to destroy it all.

Art lover Frank Stokes (Clooney) recruits a team of knowledgeable men from around the world to find the stolen art works and return them to their rightful owners. His team includes James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). A young recruit, Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), who was raised in Brooklyn but speaks German, comes in handy.

The team becomes interested in searching for two specific artifacts above all the others. One is a multi-panel piece stolen from the Catholic Church. The other is a Michelangelo sculpture of the Madonna and child, which one of the men dies trying to protect.

Meanwhile, Granger is sent to Paris to meet with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a former secretary of a high-ranking Nazi official; she may be sympathetic to the resistance, and it's up to Granger to get her to talk. Fortunately for Granger, she's a woman and he's a man, and it's springtime in Paris...

Most, if not all, of these characters have been renamed from their real-life counterparts, suggesting that Clooney's movie is a very loose reinterpretation of a true story. It plays loose, too, a bit more laid-back than it could have been, and nowhere near as tight and as assured as Clooney's first two films, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck. It's as if Clooney and friends just tried to have as good a time as possible. That fun is sometimes contagious, and sometimes not.

Specifically, the movie could have been a better combination of drama and comedy; there are some laughs here and there, but the dramatic parts come mostly in the form of speeches. One very nice moment has Murray's Campbell receiving a recorded greeting from his family. As he does not have a record player, he goes off to have a shower. His colleague, Savitz, puts the record on a camp loudspeaker so that Campbell can hear it in the shower. The scene simply lingers over the expressions on the men's faces as the greeting turns into a soulful rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

The high quality of the cast here goes a long way. Murray and Balaban make a wonderful team, like a low-key comedy duo out of an old WWII comic strip. The rest of the cast sort of glides by on their charm, but it is considerable charm, and it's easy to watch.

The movie digs deepest when dealing with the question of whether any of this mattered. Are the lives of people less important than preserving artwork? Are these guys "real" soldiers, and are they serving their country as much as soldiers who fight in battle? It appears as it Clooney himself is not sure of his answer to this question, and the movie seems unsure as well.

But at least the question is there to be asked, and at least The Monuments Men is a passable movie for grownups. I'm not sure I'd risk my life to save it, but I am glad I saw it.

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