Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Review: George Clooney's 'Monuments Men' Is Important But Mediocre

Here's a fun little fact: Barring some kind of added value, George Clooney star-vehicles tend to open to around $13 million. I'm not talking about the all-star Ocean's trilogy or blockbusters like Batman & Robin, The Perfect Storm, or Gravity. I'm talking about the old-school star vehicles that Clooney has consistently used his star power to get made for the last 15 years. Those films, the ones Clooney is arguably best known for, generally open to around $11-$13m on their wide-release opening weekend. It happens almost every time, and every time we get pundits asking "Is George Clooney still a movie star?", ignoring this very consistent pattern.

Be it Up In The Air ($11.2m), Men Who Stare At Goats ($12m), Michael Clayton ($10.3m), Intolerable Cruelty ($12.5m), Syriana ($11m), or The American ($13m), Leatherheads ($12.5m), or The Ides of March, Clooney's long list of "movies they just don't make anymore" are usually cheap enough not to need blockbuster grosses in order to make money, which is good since the biggest opening for a film like this is Burn After Reading (also starring Brad Pitt among others), which opened to $19m. As such, anything approaching $20m for Monuments Men has to be considered a solid win. After that, well, that's the open question, isn't it? Monuments Men cost around $50 million, and was co-financed by Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox . Sony distributes the film domestically while Fox handles the overseas distribution.

As such, it basically only has to perform like one of the "better" Clooney vehicles in order to eventually make a profit. Point being, some of those Clooney vehicle hover around $50m domestic and $90m worldwide ( Michael Clayton, Syriana, One Fine Day, etc.). Others are in the $30-$40m domestic range but hang around the over/under $70m worldwide range ( The Ides of March, The American, The Men Who Stare At Goats, The Ides of March). As long as Monuments Men doesn't completely crap out overseas ( Leatherheads), it should eventually qualify as a mostly worthwhile investment after all revenue streams are counted.

The film is of course being sold as a proverbial Ocean's 11 in World War II, highlighting the film's strong cast (Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, etc.) and light tone. With better buzz, it would almost qualify as an event picture, a would-be "big" movie dropping at the beginning of February. But thanks to Clooney-and-pals' usual "we worked for peanuts" budgeting, the film doesn't have to be a blockbuster to succeed. Heck, with a light PG-13, it may well become a staple in classrooms. Even if it "underwhelms", studios generally like being in the mostly prestigious Clooney business, partially because he brings his movie star pals to play and gives them a $100m movie for $50m.

The Promotional Codes:

The story behind Monuments Men, about a team of soldiers sent into the European war zone towards the end of World War II to protect and retrieve art, is an interesting one. But it is not necessarily a story that lends itself to a movie. To writer/producer/director/star George Clooney and writer/producer Grant Heslov's credit, they don't add extraneous action scenes or near-escapes in order to enliven the proceedings. But truth (or apparent truth, I won't vouch for the film's utter historical accuracy) is no substitute for bad drama. And aside from some worthwhile Clooney monologues, there is very little drama to be found.

The film is generally lacking in both incident and urgency. Even with the proverbial ticking clock, whereby the end of the war may mean the mass destruction of various stolen and/or precious artifacts and cultural landmarks, the pace feels not just episodic but arbitrary. There is little sense of what the Monuments Mens' plans are or what their long term or short term strategy is for their art scavenger hunt. Without going into details, the men seemingly wander around and occasionally stumble upon a location with lots of art to be loaded into a truck. Again, this may be true, but it's not very compelling.

In order to kill time during this long period of non-action, we get a subplot involving the film's lone female character. Cate Blanchett's French art historian is technically supposed to represent the dozen or so real-life women who participated in the effort (in real life there were around 300 people attempting to save European culture after the war ended), but she is there frankly more as a would-be love interest for Matt Damon (who, like in Ocean's 13, is away from the gang seemingly in a different movie for most of the running time). Blanchett is fine, but her role is a prime example of how much time explicitly male-centric movies waste merely so they can put a girl, any girl at all, on the poster.

The best thing about the film isn't anything that happens during its 115 minute running time, but rather the ideas under the surface. We get plenty of lectures about whether or not a soldier's life is worth risking (and losing) over a painting or a statute, and the film makes a strong case for the idea that saving the world is about more than just saving its people. At its heart, the picture is a study of how Pavlov's Hierarchy of Human Needs applies during a time when the only priority perhaps should be on the physiological. And the film dances around the tricky subject of soldiers running around rescuing paintings while the Holocaust was still occurring.

The film implies that the men used in the Monuments Men project were not people who otherwise would have been sent into combat to more quickly end the war. The Holocaust is under-the-surface of its best sequences, including a recovered painting being returned to an empty house, and a discovery of a barrel of gold bits extracted from teeth. The film argues that it shouldn't be an either/or proposition, that a successful campaign should include saving the people and their culture. In an era when the city of Detroit may be forced to sell off its art collections in order to dig itself out of bankruptcy, the themes in Monuments Men are sadly more relevant than perhaps intended.

If you've noticed that I've spent far more time discussing what the film is about rather than how it's about it, you've honed in on the film's core problem. Monuments Men is full of important ideas and worthwhile debate but is relatively un-engaging as a film. It shuffles from moment to moment, with little connective tissue and no real narrative drive. The actors are enjoying themselves, there are a handful of strong individual moments, and the picture looks terrific. Clooney clearly set out to make an explicitly old-fashioned movie, and there is artistry to its lack of pretension or film-making razzle-dazzle.

But aside from the film's themes, often explicitly stated in monologue (which feels like a post-production connective device), there isn't much to keep the viewer's interest. It is the kind of story that probably made a great book and a fine documentary, but doesn't necessarily lend itself to a feature film. Monuments Men is arguably an important movie, but that doesn't make it a good one.

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