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The Monuments Men (Columbia Pictures, PG-13)

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MonumentsMen 75It is messy and feels fairly slight, but it has a lot going for it. Some may be turned off by the tonal shifts, but that’s in keeping with the classic films it’s emulating.

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One of my favorite genres is the “men on a mission” genre. As far as I’m concerned, the best of these were made in the sixties. Movies like The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape took huge ensemble casts of stars and set them to work to achieve one specific task. George Clooney’s The Monuments Men is clearly made in the tradition of these films, complete with a jaunty score and freeze frames of the cast members in the closing credits. The mission is to save priceless pieces of art that have been stolen by the Nazis in World War II. Not only do they have to fight the enemy, but they have to convince their own soldiers not to wantonly destroy these sites as part of the war effort. It’s an admirable mission, and Clooney has assembled a great cast to play the men, so it should be great.

It’s not great. It’s not bad, in fact I’d say it’s pretty good, but it certainly feels compromised. The film was originally meant to come out a few months ago, and was pushed back because Clooney didn’t feel like he had enough time to finish the edit. They should have pushed it back further. The movie feels like an early cut. Part of that may have just been concessions of time. Most classic “men on a mission” movies are really long (look at Seven Samurai) but The Monuments Men clocks in at under two hours. That’s rare for any movie these days, but this one specifically feels like there are parts missing. The Dirty Dozen spends an hour and a half getting to know its characters. When your team is made up of not just Clooney, but Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban, amongst others, you want to spend some time just hanging out with them, but the movie introduces them in a quick silent montage and doesn’t waste time getting into the actual mission. Usually, I would applaud such efficient storytelling, but in a movie like this, we want to be able to take our time. Seeing the team get assembled and then bonding through training makes us care about what happens to them later on. Here, we only like them because of what the individual actors bring to it.

All that said, the actors do bring a lot. Cate Blanchett plays a very dull character, but because she’s Cate Blanchett, her scenes are never dull. The men get split up early on, so we get to see Goodman and Dujardin bonding, while Murray and Balaban bicker like characters in a buddy cop film. It’s fun, but ultimately, this film cares more about the mission than the men, and it’s better the other way around.

A lot of early reviews of this film have been very negative, and I think that’s a bit unfair. It is messy and feels fairly slight, but it has a lot going for it. Some may be turned off by the tonal shifts, but that’s in keeping with the classic films it’s emulating. The Great Escape happily jumps from broad comedy to characters being brutally killed. This is somber material, but it should provide some escapism. | Sean Lass

 

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