We know pretty much all there is to know about George Clooney the actor. He’s a handsome, charming, straight-up movie star with decent enough chops to jump up and snag the occasional Oscar nomination. Basically, he’s crushing it.
But George Clooney the director is still rounding into form. As we add his latest effort, “The Monuments Men,” to the list, it’s becoming clear that behind the camera Clooney takes his cues from Hollywood’s Golden Age as he delivers finely-crafted, old-fashioned movies.
“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Leatherheads” and “The Ides of March” all felt beholden to a bygone era. Now comes “The Monuments Men” and it feels like it could have easily come out in 1957 and starred Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, and James Mason.
The setup is from the classic “WWII Guys on a Mission” genre with the twist being that, instead of going to kill Hitler or blow up a bridge, these guys are middle-aged art scholars tasked with saving Europe’s greatest artistic treasures from the ravages of war.
Based on a true story, Clooney opened up his Rolodex and assembled an all-star cast. Clooney plays team-leader Frank Stokes, who assembles James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin, Hollywood’s new go-to Frenchman – sorry, Jean Reno), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey” fame) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban, king of the “Hey, it’s that guy!” character actors), to track down and identify works of art the Nazis swiped during their march across Europe.
The reason Hitler was pillaging the world’s greatest art collections, aside from general, megalomaniacal jerkiness, was to fill the massive museum he was building for himself in Germany.
As the Allies pushed into Europe and the Nazis beat a hasty retreat, the race was on to find all the art before it was hidden away, destroyed, or fell into the hands of the Soviets.
The movie is a little disjointed as The Monuments Men, as they call themselves, split up and spread throughout Europe hunting for famed masterworks.
What the film then becomes is a series of vignettes — some funny, some thrilling, some heartbreaking — and in spite of the lack of a solid, cohesive plotline, Clooney somehow manages to make it all dance and deliver a thoroughly entertaining movie.
Clooney co-wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov, and the two do eventually get the movie to coalesce around two central plot points, the first being the hunt for the crown jewel in the massive stolen collection, Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child;” and the other being Damon’s attempt to get information from art expert and French Resistance member Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who questions the Monuments Men’s motives.
“The Monuments Men” was pushed back a few months from its initial release date, which usually spells all kinds of trouble for a movie, especially one being touted for 2013 awards consideration.
But Clooney said he simply wasn’t finished with the special effects and didn’t want to turn in a rush job. After seeing the movie, I’m glad he waited.
This isn’t really an awards-bait kind of film anyway. What it is instead is a fun, enjoyable movie, smartly crafted for an adult audience. I hate to say it, but in a way, I’m afraid that’s what makes “The Monuments Men” feel so old-fashioned.
“The Monuments Men” is rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking.