Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: "The Monuments Men" is a Safe Look at Art's Influence on Culture

George Clooney
After being moved to 2014 due to need for more post-production work, director George Clooney's The Monuments Men finally opened this month. It is in the midst of an Oscar season that it was once in the discussion of, which may be problematic for its chances next year. As evident by the past, films opening before June (and this year: October) are doomed to not even receive any recognition. While it could be that the largely competitors of the time are throwaway cash cows, it is also just because it is too early in any given year to be thinking about next year's ceremony. This isn't so much a problem for Clooney, whose prestige within the Academy has recently been recognized with a producer win for Argo. However, his star-studded World War II film is another story and one that does open the debate for next year's ceremony.

The Monuments Men follows the real-life story of several soldiers during World War II who run an operation in order to counterattack the Third Reich's mission to destroy priceless art by collecting it and returning to their rightful owners. The soldiers aren't so much fighters as they are art dealers, constructionists, and people passionate about the creative arts, which leader Frank Stokes (Clooney) claim are heroes for preserving the world's passions and freedoms. The story plays out throughout Europe on its quest to save the day. With a score by Alexandre Desplat that captures an Americana sense of patriotism with varying styles, this does feel like Clooney's passion project towards a division that time has forgotten. 

The only real issue is that the film isn't all that interesting in making these figures into anything more than... men. The great exploration for art feels undermined by there being no personal connection to the characters. There are scenes of bonding and intimate conversations, but the overall goal doesn't feel like it highlights any one spectacular deed, save for Stokes. The quest is accomplished and despite the occasional death, the struggles aren't necessarily that investing. The film is a love letter to art collection, but only feels like it on a surface level. Very little discussion and dissection of why art is precious is actually mentioned within the confines of the film besides the visceral reaction it gives people.

It is a competent film despite all of this. The film feels entirely like Clooney's obsession with World War II films from the 50's and 60's fully realized in beautiful cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. The exotic locations give definition to these characters and adds beauty to a haunting world. Even with the conflicts however, it is often just beautiful scenery that adds an authenticity.

The script by Clooney partner Grant Heslov (The Ides of March) is also an interesting mix of seriousness and occasional asides. Despite the film taking the subject matter seriously, there are often moments within the film of clumsiness or sly wit that draws humor and brief spurts of personality to its characters. Even then, the characters don't feel all that defined save for their vast differences in appearances. It is in the moments when strange, unknown causes lead to group conversations that the film clicks, leading to the cast's moments of chemistry. It is exciting and provides a sense of what the film could be.

Of course, it could largely just be that The Monuments Men mission is noble, but in a cinematic sense, lackluster. At its core, its a mission about people saving art. The depth is barely beyond surface level and there aren't that many compelling characters to carry the film. The familiarity of World War II to cinema, probably from the films that inspired Clooney, doesn't help the cause much either. The film is serviceable yet predictable. The conflicts never feel sever because the characters never feel important. These are all men working towards one cause, and when they achieve it, it is a celebratory moment that is quite predictable. Despite the sense that art is crucial to life, it doesn't feel like there is much material that could make a compelling film about it.

Jean Dujardin
This isn't to say that The Monuments Men is a bad film. In fact, it is rather successful as a February film. While that title has become acidic in the past few decades, this film transcends the tag rather effectively. It tells the story with ease and makes for a competent two hour film about World War II. There's a lot of logical reasoning behind Clooney's desire to make such a film, as art is an industry that connects to cinephiles rather easily. If you feel any passion towards preserving famous art pieces, there is a chance that this film will play towards you. It is light on historical context with the Nazis, but it does what it set out to do with a lot of famous actors looking like they're having fun.

The film is somewhat of a disappointment however on the grounds of Clooney's last directorial effort and collaboration with Heslov: The Ides of March. Where that film impressively showed the complexity of politics by making dark and interesting characters, it feels like his latest is too surface level. It doesn't have anything complex and deep to say other than that "Art is important." That is a crucial message, but I don't feel like the film elevates it beyond that level. With Clooney's quest to explore American culture via politics in his directorial efforts, this is one of his lesser films.

Though don't let that distract from his competence. His films look great and despite not feeling important, are assembled with some care. The story flows perfectly fine, and while unmemorable has a sense of patriotism that makes it accessible. However, it lacks the complexity of The Ides of March, and that is problematic, as it could have allowed for opportunities to make art feel like it is something more than a buzz word. Even as a World War II film, it doesn't feel defined, as the war simply ends at some point within the film. The war may have not been the main purpose of the story, but it definitely was a dangerous plot point within the story. It just doesn't feel that way.

It is too early to predict how it could do in the Oscar race next year. As evident with Clooney's last directorial film, it could sneak into the race with a few spare nominations, but I don't know if Best Picture is in its wake. It has plenty of universal appeal: big actors, important themes, World War II; yet it will need to hold up in conversation by the point its competition comes out. I do believe that Clooney is an underrated director and his style here reflects that, even with poor source material. The Academy could change their hearts and nominate films from earlier in the year, but it does feel like the Oscar season is growing unfortunately reserved to the last three months. Let's hope that changes.

Either way, there isn't too much to complain about The Monuments Men other than that it is an okay film. It may not take advantage of its opportunities, but it does make for serviceable cinema. Its recollections of cinematic history definitely influence the atmosphere, but Heslov's script is too uneven and just beats the themes at you in voice-over. This isn't the great World War II film about art, but at least it makes for an enjoyable, safe film that is likely not to be remembered.

Is The Monuments Men a logical candidate for next year's Oscars? Could George Clooney have gone further with his exploration of art during wartime? What era will he explore next as a director?

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