George Clooney's latest directing effort, "The Monuments Men," takes a look at the handful of out-of-shape artisans tasked with saving the great art of Europe stolen by the Nazis during World War II. The film isn't a masterpiece, but it's a fitting tribute to the men who put their lives on the line in the name of saving culture.
When it looks as if Germany is on the verge of losing the war, art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) makes a plea to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to send in a team of men to save the art.
The motley group of art experts/soldiers are played with wit, charm and a little silliness by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville.
It's not often that Clooney directs, but when he does, he finds stories that look past the superficial to the human elements.
The film stresses that no life is worth a piece of art. Had Clooney's direction been so focused then the movie would have been nothing more than a cultured twist on "The Dirty Dozen." But Clooney asks the audience to step back and admire the art for its magnitude and significance. By doing that, the film becomes more than just a standard war story and ends up being a treatise on the importance of paint on canvas or chiseled stone in defining who we are as a people.
It would have been easy for the film to have blown up on its own self-importance.
Clooney keeps letting the air out of the big ideas through the light comedy he sprinkles throughout the story. Damon and Clooney have a very familiar light banter while Murray continues to prove that he can be hilarious even when he's playing the part in a very understated manner.
The film is based on a true story, but some artistic license has been taken. A simple story about looking for art would have been cerebral but not had the heart this production shows.
There are some chips and flakes on the cinematic canvas.
Damon's character spends most of the film trying to get information from a French art expert (Cate Blanchett).
There's not enough chemistry for them to create romantic sparks. Damon would have been better utilized in the thick of the action.
Except for Damon's character being a wayward son, Clooney keeps the film going without having to depend on the usual high explosion elements of a typical war story.
In the end, this is a story about a handful of people who love art put together by a cast and crew who share that same passion.
"The Monuments Men," rated PG-13 for violence. Stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray. Directed by George Clooney. Running time: 112 minutes. Grade: B
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.