In a handful of projects, George Clooney has proven himself as equally suave and confident behind the camera as he is in front of it. At the same time, however, his handsome visage has grown steadily worse for wear as he has mellowed into middle age — and the movies have followed suit. The result has been a decidedly tamer, if never entirely dismissible, pop culture artist intermittently successful at making smarter Hollywood movies. While his Charlie Kaufman-scripted "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" had experimental bite, and the superbly restrained "Good Night, and Good Luck" explored its topic with oodles of intellectual élan, the earnestly upbeat sports comedy "Leatherheads" flopped hard, and "The Ides of March" displayed its "all-politicians-are-monsters" polemic a little too broadly. But like Clooney's slick grin, the later movies reflect an eagerness to satisfy audience expectations on par with attempts by the earlier ones to challenge them. At first shrewdly unconventional, Clooney's storytelling abilities have been steadily declining to middlebrow stature.
Now comes "The Monuments Men," Clooney's first completed feature since he turned 50, and certainly his most idealistic work: a sincere ode to art scholars recruited in WWII to salvage European masterworks pilfered by the Nazis. The story, co-scripted by Clooney and Grant Heslov from Robert M. Edsel's non-fiction tome, goes down smoothly enough if you're willing to tolerate its softball treatment. Clooney's treatment of the material takes from of a goofy ensemble and whimsical ebullience seemingly borrowed from Wes Anderson's cabinet (Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, as two experts awkwardly paired together, make a particularly delectable odd couple that could carry their own spin-off). Alexadre Desplat's upbeat soundtrack and Phedon Papamichael's vibrant cinematography complete the glossy treatment. Far from a great war movie, "The Monuments Men" is routinely entertaining in its simplistic vision of history, which also makes it entirely disposable.
Though a joint production of Sony and 20th Century Fox, "Monuments Men" has the old-fashioned temperament of a classic Disney production, and the patriotic air of a classic wartime "Why We Fight" propaganda short: It opens with a bearded Clooney, as mission leader George L. Stout, laying out the case for rescuing fine art before the end of the war, while a silhouetted FDR listens closely on the edge of the frame. Yet Clooney is ostensibly narrating his interest in the material, so he may as well be addressing us when he softly intones, "Who will make sure Michaelantelo's David is still standing, is Mona Lisa is smiling?" It's a line practically begging to be delivered in singsong as part of a call and response chant: The Monuments Men, that's who!
The blithe attitude continues over the title credits, during which Clooney surfaces around the country to recruit various craftsmen and researchers, from portly sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman) to French designer Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin). Because there's little sense for these men as people, their first appearance together in a briefing session has thin, sitcom-like parameters: funny in theory, but out of whack with the context. During a slide show in which they learn about Hitler's plans to stock a massive "Fuhrer museum" with stolen art, and critique the dictator's early attempts at his own paintings, the Monuments Men come across as a group of would-be Gomer Pyles — which is part of the joke, of course, though as that tone continues, it comes at the expense of giving this weird-but-true historical footnote much staying power.
Notwithstanding the appeal of the aforementioned Murray-Balaban pairing, "Monuments Men" rarely maintains the story's fundamentally intriguing premise: a bunch of art history buffs running through wartorn Europe. Instead, it's a tame, affable overview of the events minus much of their depth. One side plot, involving the efforts by American agent James Rorimer (Matt Damon) to locate the Nazi's treasure trove of stolen goods — working alongside Parisian bookkeeper Rose Valland (a typically fierce but underutilized Cate Blanchett) — draws some appeal from their romantic possibilities but ultimately goes nowhere.
Similarly, various shootouts and internal strategy sessions among the men have a monotonous, calculated quality, as if Clooney and Heslov decided at a certain point simply to run their scenario through a war movie filter that only cuts surface deep. Occasionally, their script brightens up with fleeting references to the tragedies surrounding them ("The Nazis took better care of paintings than people," asserts one of the men), but overall, "The Monuments Men" views its fascinating topic with an altogether frustrating degree of neatness, even when members of its troop perish in the line of duty.
In fact, the death is part of an all-too-obvious design: The movie's collection of tame storytelling ingredients — toothless battle scenes, galvanizing speeches — reach an apex when the music swells to uplifting effect in the closing scene, set in the present day and meant as a tribute to the intentions of the fallen men. It's Clooney's first bonafide stab at a Spielberg moment: an attempt to render a dour subject in sugary, feel-good terms. Due to the unquestionably profound implications of its characters' mission, "The Monuments Men" succeeds at doing that much while creating a distancing effect through its rosy lens. Smothered by its lighthearted approach, "The Monuments Men" attempts to make a grand statement about the valiance of dying for the sake of art, but fails to create it.
Criticwire Grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening nationwide this week, "The Monuments Men" is unlikely to leave a huge dent at the box office, especially given competition from "The Lego Movie." It could prover more formidable overseas, aided by a premiere slot at the upcoming Berlin International Film Festival.