February 20, 2014

Give Me Rothschild Originals or Give Me Death?

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By CHARLEY DU

If there were any overarching statement to be made about George Clooney’s Monuments Men, it would be that great actors don’t always make great movies. With Clooney as director, writer and member of a star-studded cast that also includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Jean Dujardin, this movie looked like it had huge potential when its trailer first premiered in theaters last year. Many, including myself, pegged it to be a possible contender at the Oscars next month. The first warning signs for the film however, came when the premiere date for the movie was pushed back to this month, with Clooney claiming a need for more time to perfect the period film. Some were not sold, saying that Clooney had a change of heart after considering the film’s stiff competition. That sentiment was definitely confirmed last week. While Monuments Men is mostly light-humored and at times heartwarming, it is rarely suspenseful or engaging and fails to generate a cohesive, lasting impression.

Monuments Men, based on events that took place during World War II, finds the protagonist, Lieutenant Frank Stokes (Clooney), recruiting six art experts and taking his platoon behind enemy lines in Germany in order to save thousands of pieces of art looted by Nazis. Understanding the perils of war, the men undergo basic military training and separate into small groups trying to locate the stolen artworks. Most notably, Lieutenant James Granger (Damon) goes off to Paris with the mission of finding out where the Nazis transported the stolen art from Claire Simone (Blanchett), a French museum curator disgusted by Nazi actions but taken by Granger’s charm. As the platoon gets deeper into German territory, the stakes get higher — Hitler orders the destruction of all stolen items after his death and the Russian military presses hard from the east. After much hilarity and bloodshed, and with the reluctant help of Simone, the men finally save most of the artwork which Stokes deems the foundation of modern society. Yet the question remains, is art worth people’s lives? Stokes certainly thinks so; Clooney seems to agree; but its hard to believe that most of the audience was ever convinced.

Although the characters depicted in the film find their roots in real people, they become nothing more than caricatures for most of the film under the direction of Clooney. There is no denial that the cast delivered well-rendered performances. After all, they are the largest draw for the film as far as viewers are concerned and the audience got what they bargained for during the film. Clooney adds a retro touch to his usual suaveness; Damon embodies the standard sidekick, yet cannot help but win over Claire Simone’s heart; Balaban and Murray provide comic relief in bantering jauntily; Goodman and Dujardin become an interesting pairing with the latter displaying his full range of “Frenchness.” Nonetheless, these characters fail to represent the hundreds of men and women who are the real heroes behind the film. Throughout the movie, Murray is the dorky architect, Goodman the obese sculptor, Balaban the acerbic theater producer and Dujardin the “Frenchie.” The reduced version of these “Monuments Men” does not do their real-life counterparts justice, as they are, for lack of a better word, fake and never bring their mission to life.

The biggest problem with Monuments Men is that it attempts to combine light-hearted Clooney-style humor with as serious a topic as war while trying to do justice to the story of the “Monuments Men.”  Yes, people laughed when Goodman and Dujardin fought over shooting an enemy only to find a frightened German boy; yes, people teared up at the death of two men who sacrificed their lives for a unified cause; yes, people rooted for the rest of the platoon to save the artworks for which these men died. Yet, they could have just as easily missed these few noteworthy moments because they nodded off when the film lingered and bored for its majority.

Clooney’s treatment of the subject is ultimately its downfall. The film bites off more than it can chew. In juggling humor, a historically serious topic and a realistic depiction, Clooney falls short in every category. A touching moment at the end of the film shows an older Stokes visiting the Madonna of Bruges with a child assumed to be his grandson. This seems to be Clooney’s reconciliation that the efforts and lives of those so-called “Monuments Men” were worth it. Even if that were true — not to take away from these people’s valiant efforts — Clooney’s film does little to convince the audience of his belief.

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