What is a revered work of art truly worth? Does it merit sending military troops deep into enemy territory to retrieve?
These questions haunt The Monuments Men, George Clooney’s cinematic account of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program, an Allied platoon that stepped in harm’s way in order to retrieve major artifacts stolen by Adolf Hitler’s army during World War II. The fact-based yarn, one of two new releases I’m reviewing this week, mixes lighthearted humor and bittersweet pathos as it explores the obstacles this international motley crew of seasoned pros faced in order to “protect what’s left and find what’s missing,” masterworks that would have otherwise been destroyed or, perhaps a worse fate, graced the walls of households that swore allegiance to Herr Führer.
Boasting a cast headlined by Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett, the fifth feature directorial effort from the former ER doc sounds like a slam dunk, but from the solemn “based on a true story” title card displayed at the beginning of the film, it’s clear Clooney wants to underline the importance of the story he’s telling, even though he’s assigned fictitious names to the real people he’s depicting. An endless succession of scenes shows Frank Stokes (Clooney, channeling Clark Gable) briefing platoon members about the significance of the pieces they’ve been tasked to recover. He’s preaching to the converted, of course, even though Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman) claims he was told the enemies would only be firing blanks at them. Hardy har har.
Meanwhile, back in Paris, art historian Claire Simone (Blanchett) is stuck playing secretary to Nazi officers … while secretly feeding her brother intel and recording the artwork the Third Reich pilfered, predominantly from Jewish families. But could she really trust these Yankees not to take the priceless paintings and sculptures back to America with them? She’s understandably wary when James Granger (Damon) comes asking for her help. The tentative tug of war that ensues between the gentle-but-determined Granger and the initially standoffish Simone achieves the delicate tonal balance Clooney is doggedly striving to maintain.
The key ingredient The Monuments Men is missing is suspense. It’s a placid film that plods along amiably enough, imbued with a genuine affection for the subject matter and the heroes who carried out this mission. But where its sense of peril, the feeling these men could be compromised at any moment? It’s a noticeable absence for a film with Great Escape aspirations that doesn’t quite transcend its middlebrow cinema-of-quality trappings. Even ace composer Alexandre Desplat phones it in with a NPR-friendly score that repeats its main theme like a broken record.
Clooney, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Grant Heslov, has based The Monuments Men on Robert M. Edsel’s nonfiction book, but the personal stories he has amassed hardly justify the two-hour running time. As a result, the film feels overly didactic, allowing Clooney to indulge his most patronizing impulses. There’s a taking-your-medicine smugness to his direction that leeches the film of its overqualified cast’s understated charm. For all the finger-wagging about how vital The Monuments Men‘s Monuments Men were in preserving our cultural heritage, the actual missing artwork comes across more like an abstract symbol of freedom rather than an invaluable sampling of artistic expression. It’s Inglourious Basterds for the Antiques Roadshow crowd: safe, attractively shot and ultimately inconsequential.
The antidote to Clooney’s self-important wartime dramedy comes in a candy-colored package of interlocking pieces. The Lego Movie brings the iconic toys to the big screen in cheeky, computer-animated fashion. The latest kid-oriented, grownup-friendly concoction from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs smart alecks Phil Lord and Chris Miller hits the ground running with the promise of universe-destroying gloom and doom from nefarious leader Lord Business (Will Ferrell). The most valuable commodity in the world(s) the filmmakers have cleverly rendered is creativity. Without it, Business can set in motion his dastardly plan for utter annihilation, brainwashing the population with the infectious ditty “Everything Is Awesome.” (I still get the darn song out of my head.)
Enter Emmet Brickowoski (the voice of Chris Pratt), a genial, utterly average Everyman who just wants to connect with the peers who think he’s so ordinary he barely registers. When a red piece becomes stuck to his back, he’s thrown in the middle of the struggle to wrest free from Business iron grip. Kickass heroine Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) can’t bring herself to believe this happy-go-lucky drone is the best hope for plastickind, even though long-maned wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) reassures them his coming has been foretold.
If all these story elements sound familiar, that’s because The Lego Movie owes quite a debt to The Matrix movies, with Emmet standing in for Keanu Reeves’ Messianic figure. It’s obvious Lord and Miller have something to say about how our quality of life suffers when we lose that childlike impulse to whip up entire worlds in our heads and bring them to life using toys. It’s a noble goal, but also one that flirts with mawkishness, particularly in the film’s final third.
The Lego Movie is at its strongest when it’s unencumbered with moving the story forward and just revels in throwing pop culture references – and iconic figures – and you (literally, in many instances; the film is being released in 3D). It achieves a tactility that brings to mind Aardman Animation at their most playful. It’s sweetly edible pop culture comfort food.
The Lego Movie and The Monuments Men are currently out in wide release.