THE MONUMENTS MEN
Director: George Clooney, M, 118 minutes. Opens Thursday.
It's a given that nearly everyone loves the idea of George Clooney as the last of the old-fashioned Hollywood movie stars, dressed in a tuxedo and always ready with a quip. The problem is that Clooney's achievements as an actor, which have grown complex and rewarding with the likes of Michael Clayton and Up in the Air, have allowed him to pursue a career as a director, and it is increasingly clear he is not a great filmmaker.
The Monuments Men, a World War II adventure that is not very adventurous, is Clooney's fifth feature in a run of films that began promisingly, but has become increasingly problematic. It is not a complete failure, but, as in the 2011 political drama The Ides of March, a strong cast and arresting moments do not create anything sustainable.
Clooney and his regular collaborator, co-writer Grant Heslov, are attracted to fascinating material that they ultimately whittle down into something they believe is more palatable. The Ides of March was a pungent play, Farragut North, set solely among political operatives, but their adaptation added a new plot and characters, while 2009's The Men Who Stare at Goats, a Clooney and Heslov collaboration that the latter directed and the former was in, lost most of the deadpan madness that informed Jon Ronson's book.
The source material for The Monuments Men is Robert Edsel's 2009 non-fiction book of the same title. It followed a small group of American art historians, curators and experts trying to preserve buildings and recover the cultural treasure that had been stolen from museums and collections in occupied Europe by Germany's Nazi regime.
It is an assemble-a-team film, and Frank Stokes (Clooney), who commands the unit as Danny Ocean with a better library, literally says to his first recruit, curator James Granger (Matt Damon): ''I'm to put a team together.'' The film keeps touching on interesting material, but it feels the need to talk us through everything, instead of forging ahead, and creating an actual story as opposed to a plot.
The not-so-dirty half dozen is full of accomplished actors, including Bill Murray as an architect, John Goodman as a sculptor, Bob Balaban as a choreographer, Jean Dujardin as a French artist, and Hugh Bonneville as a disreputable British expert given a second chance. The parts are all loosely based on figures from Edsel's book, but even liberally reworked, they make the telling point that there are many ways to serve a cause you believe in.
The most interesting character is flinty Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a French museum staffer who positioned herself in the Nazis' looting program to keep track of France's stolen treasures. When approached by Granger, the boyish American to her European woman, she is initially worried that the Americans will keep the works. (Instead it was the Russians who kept all they confiscated.)
''I see you,'' Claire yells at an SS officer fleeing Paris with a train full of stolen works, and her desire to bear witness despite the risk to her life is one of several powerful themes the movie touches on.
Another is the growing realisation that Jewish collectors were treated particularly badly, which is followed by the grim discovery in one underground stash of a barrel full of gold teeth. But Clooney and Heslov fail to settle on a tone, or at least tie the contrasting moods together.
There are daring feats and moments of tragic loss, bursts of sentiment and droll back and forth between Murray and Balaban's characters, yet none of these experts ever talks about why they would give their life to save a Michelangelo sculpture or a Picasso. The film is wary of the subject it is about. Striving for emotional impact, Clooney overreaches. Goodbye letters posthumously recited are emotional enough without bloodstains on the page.
It is a bonus that the film is impressively assembled, starting with the richly crisp palette of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.
In Edsel's book, a soldier describes the unit's leader George Stout, the basis of Clooney's Frank Stokes, as ''economical with words, precise, vivid. One believed what he said; one wanted to do what he proposed.'' That sums up George Clooney the actor, but not George Clooney the director.