6 February 2014 | jdesando
Entertaining search for a Madonna and other great pieces.
"This is our history. It's not to be stolen or destroyed. It's to be held up and admired." Frank Stokes
Considering the great art works recovered from the Nazis in 1944 by the Monuments Men, losing 2 lives in the operation might have been worth it. Or at least that's the struggle of the hero in the titular film inspired by the events: Frank Stokes (George Clooney), a curator at Harvard's Fogg Museum, goes back to the Army to head a small art recovery contingent (7—most out of shape and aging like John Goodman), with echoes of the Magnificent Seven and Dirty Dozen recruiting sequences, promising exceptional wit and action that doesn't materialize.
Why is such a high-concept plot lost in a February opening? Possibly because it's enjoyable but not remarkable, a pastiche of brief episodes not always connected to the plot's central vision (shooting at a German sniper youth thought to be an adult?). The episodes may be meant to establish character while sliding over them to chronicle a not always interesting path to the mines and castle where the Nazis have hidden the loot. At least the studio had the good sense not to pit this modest adventure against, say, American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave in the Oscar prelims in November and December.
The action picks up as they find the destinations, but along the way James Granger (Matt Damon) interacts with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) in a low-key romance that finds great art but small love. Changing Claire from the original monument woman Rose into a love-seeking operative angers some historians. Another concern besides history and coherence is tone: Reverence for the mission clashes with the jokey camaraderie of old-fashioned WWII movies.
It is a delight to hear the names of artists like Picasso and Rembrandt even though they had little influence on the film's fair-to midlin' screenplay penned by Clooney and Grant Heslov. Looking for Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges and van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece is definitely grand, but the grandeur is not matched by the screenplay.
As for directing, Clooney misses the sharpness of his Good Night and Good Luck while he helms here what seems a small story about an odd group of soldiers struggling to rise to the occasion of history's greatest art reclamation. It's an enjoyable film but not a great one.