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16 February 2014

"The Story of Our Lives Painted on Canvas or Etched in Stone"

Faced with a choice between Spike Jonze's Her and George Clooney's new film The Monuments Men this weekend, I decided I would probably enjoy the latter more. Based on the poster, I was expecting an Ocean's Eleven-style caper, although with more serious subject matter. I did like the movie, but I think it suffered from trying to be too many things to too many people.


Clooney, who directed, co-wrote and produced the film, also stars as Frank Stokes, an art expert tasked with putting together a small team of art and architecture specialists to try to recover some of the paintings and sculptures stolen by the Nazis in the dying days of World War Two. These guys, including James Granger (Matt Damon), Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), are about as equipped to head off to war-torn Europe as Bruce Willis's team of drillers are to save the world from asteroid doom. They do, however, know their art, so after rudimentary training, they ship out to France and Stokes splits them into mini-team tasked with rescuing specific works.

Token Brit Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) heads to Bruges to save the Madonna; Garfield and the beret-wearing token Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) travel into the countryside. Granger gets sent to Paris where he meets Claire, a museum curator who might know where the Nazis took some of the paintings, played by Cate Blanchett doing her best to look dowdy. The operation faces a number of challenges and are frequently asked to justify their efforts to save mere art works when millions are dying. This gives the screenplay the opportunity to opine about the importance and transcendent power of art and how you have to destroy culture to truly, permanently crush a people. "Great works of art can never belong to one individual," Stokes says.

And the film's worthiness hampers its enjoyability to some extent. It was clearly trying to be funny too but in that case, it wasn't funny enough. There were a few chuckles from the audience — mainly about the frequent language/accent jokes (Damon's character has appalling French — he learnt in MontrĂ©al he admits, cuing the eye-rolling of the French — although Blanchett, playing a French character, didn't have a very good French accent either). Damon, and especially Blanchett, felt under-used, with their characters marooned from the rest of the gang. The momentum never really builds up, either, so that when a big breakthrough is made, it doesn't have the dramatic force Clooney is shooting for.

Still, it's an interesting story — based on real events — and one I knew nothing about, and all of the lead actors are as fun to watch as always. I just think Clooney needed to think more carefully about whether he wanted to tell a powerful, worthy story or an entertaining one.

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