THE MONUMENTS MEN
*** (out of 5)
February 7, 2014
George Clooney as FRANK STOKES
Matt Damon as JAMES GRANGER
Bill Murray as RICHARD CAMPBELL
Cate Blanchett as CLAIRE SIMONE
John Goodman as WALTER GARFIELD
Jean Dujardin as JEAN CLAUDE CLERMONT
Hugh Bonneville as DONALD JEFFRIES
Bob Balaban as PRESTON SAVITZ
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Directed by: George Clooney
BY KEVIN CARR
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Setting a movie during World War II almost seems too easy nowadays. It’s a rare “popular” of modern times. It has the easiest villains in cinema history. In general, these films can be real crowd-pleasers.
The downside to World War II movies is that they often tread similar ground, with the stories and characters running together. So many have been made that it’s rare for one to crop up that actually does something different. (And by “different,” I mean to tell a different aspect of the war rather than how Quentin Tarantino presented an alternate history to events, as he did in “Inglourious Basterds.”)
The fact that “The Monuments Men” tells a different type of story with a different perspective and a different objective is its greatest strength. That, and its cast.
The angle the film takes is about art. Clooney plays Frank Stokes, who has been tasked by the President to put together a team that will save paintings, sculptures and architecture from being destroyed in the final days of World War II. Part of their objective is to stop bombing raids and total war strategies from destroying existing artwork, but more on the forefront, they are trying to recover the millions of pieces the Nazis stole from public museums and private collections over the years.
Outside of the movie itself, “The Monuments Men” is curious because it was originally planned for a December release, but it was pulled out of the crowded award season and dropped into the February frame. Normally for me, this does not bode well for a movie, showing a vote of no confidence by the studio. However, this might have been the right move for this film because, while I did enjoy it, I don’t think it would have garnered any serious nominations. Plus, releasing it amid other “based on a true story” buzz-worthy films like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” would have ensured it get lost.
Like Clooney’s other directorial efforts, this isn’t a heavy and serious film. It’s more whimsical than most World War II sagas, and even when the more grim things happen in the plot, it doesn’t play as a downer. This can be confusing for the viewer, but I didn’t mind. It reminded me of films like “Stalag 17” or “The Great Escape,” which were meant to have a certain degree of fun to them.
Additionally, the film follows a vignette style of storytelling rather than having the traditional narrative that the audience follows through the film. Sure, there are continuous stories throughout – like Matt Damon’s quest to gain intelligence from an accused Nazi collaborator, or the search for a particular piece of art that cost on of the team member’s his life – but these feel more like wraparound stories than the main plot.
Once I accepted the looser storytelling process and the lighthearted tone, I found myself really enjoying it. The impressive cast is having a lot of fun, especially when they pair off together. John Goodman and Jean Dujardin seem to be enjoying themselves in their quest, but it’s Bill Murray and Bob Balaban that have the most fun. Additionally, Murray has some great self-referential moments. His basic training in the film gave me flashbacks to “Stripes,” and he also has a painful scene at the dentist, which made me smile as I thought of his notable cameo in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“The Monuments Men” may not be a perfectly constructed movie, but it’s an important one. It covers a part of World War II – and war in general – that many people don’t realize is an issue, or have forgotten about. But art is important, and this film makes that point without getting preachy. When a culture loses its art, it loses its history, and it’s not a bad thing to be reminded of that now and again.