George Clooney, love him or hate him, is one of the highest-grossing actors of all time with over US$1.56bn total box office gross. He has been involved in 13 films that grossed over US$200m at the worldwide box office. Having become a grand TV star during the 1990s in E.R. with a laid-back comedy edge that reminded many of a latter-day Cary Grant, Clooney transitioned into film elite-dom with fun bits of fluff like Out of Sight (1996) and 3 Kings (1998).
But then there was another George, a buddy-movie guy who liked to work with his friends on action/horror movies like From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) alongside pals Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, and later mass buddy-buddy projects like Ocean’s 11 (2001), Ocean’s 12 (2004) and Ocean’s 13 (2007), mixing business and pleasure with long-time amigos Ben Afleck, Matt Damon, Andy García and Brad Pitt. This prompted the industry’s pundits to try to fit him into a sort of liberal Rat Pack leadership hole he never resisted.
But wouldn’t you just know it, pegged as an American artist of modest ambitions, one who likes the implied safety net that comes from working with familiar friends, George surprised everybody when he moved to live on Lake Como in Italy, concentrating on more serious roles in Syriana (2005), which won him an academy award, his best performance in Michael Clayton (2007), with a ‘commercial’ break for Leatherheads and Burn after Reading in 2008. Why back to the fluff? Ever willing to attenuate his oeuvre in an effort to work successfully with the studios, Clooney always had an eye open for that main chance to act, write, produce and direct a film like Good Night and Good Luck (2005).
Clooney then flirted with a new muse as a political player able to make governments act. No less than The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have celebrated his liberal influence in helping save Darfur, Mali and Libya from the ravages of war. As such, he seems to be picking his subject matter in The Monuments Men with a notion of at least a nod toward lofty gravitas, in a film he produced, directed, co-wrote and acted lead.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, an art historian, a man of destiny and the story’s hub, who leads a charming group of an ‘expert’ quirky crew as they engage in a World War II operation to rescue Europe’s artistic treasures from the Nazis. Stokes is the man for the job. Chosen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to rescue “the greatest historical achievements known to man,” Stokes and his geeky crew of art-loving eccentrics want to take back what Hitler and his Nazi gangsters have stolen and appropriated from the museums of conquered countries and expropriated from rich Jews.
Well, it’s sort of fun, the good guys win, you get a history lesson, and one thing follows another, but there’s little that will tax the emotions too hard. Based on bits of seven separate history books, the real-life group included 350 men and women from 13 countries who served with the unit from 1943 to 1951. This Monuments Men story instead involves a brave handful of amusingly clichéd arty types like the stoic, all-business Stokes; Bill Murray as a cut-up architect, Lieutenant Posey; Matt Damon as Granger, a renaissance bureaucrat; Cate Blanchett as the French Spinster, Miss Simone; John Goodman, as a sculptor, Walter Garfield, who just likes to hack at stone things with a chisel and a hammer, while, naturally, Bob Balaban gets to do a familiarly persnickety, cute, patronizing, elitist German-Jewish arts snob. Consequently, Clooney gets a chance to show a light touch as Balaban and Murray hurl sarcastic abuse at one another like a male/male inverted version of Audrey Meadows and Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners.
I don’t mean to over dwell on this, but the real Monuments Men were special and what they did really was important. Yet Clooney, perhaps bogged down in producing, writing, directing and acting, loses the story’s thread. The implicit need to create a hit clashes with an equally explicit necessity to deal with the gravity of Nazi criminality and the Holocaust. Instead of telling a story, Clooney panders and, turning on that wicked hypnotic TV GP’s smile, he compromises and gives us star cameos, bits of history, a few good gags, some ‘important’ speeches about history and destiny. It’s that same ‘being important’ trip trap that Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson fell in to, too. Oh yeah, and for a war movie, it doesn’t have any action!
“The Monuments Men” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned).