Year Released: 2013
Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville
(PG-13, 112 min.)
Genre: Drama, Action and Adventure
"If you destroy an entire generation of people's culture, it's as if they never existed." Frank Stokes
Ocean’s Eleven do World War II. But what happened in Vegas should have stayed in Vegas, since the flippant tone doesn’t work here. Someone should have told George Clooney that taking it to the man in Sin City doesn’t equate with defying the Nazis in war-ravaged Europe.
Based on “the greatest treasure hunt in history,” this 2013 film should be made of sterner stuff. Seven middle-aged art experts are tasked with a mission as urgent as it is impossible – or seemingly so. They must go behind enemy lines to rescue the great works of art looted by the Nazis, who, sensing the war is lost, have secret orders to destroy it rather than give it up. And the pincer move is the relentless march of our sometime ally, the Russians, whose plan is to steal the stolen art for themselves.
Yet Clooney, directing and starring in the film, and giving it the same light banter and meandering looseness that endeared us to his 2001 Rat Pack reboot, fails to capture fully either the sense of urgency or danger. We have none of the quick cuts or disciplined editing that would match the mission. Instead, we linger on Bill Murray in a tent shower, listening to a recording of a Christmas carol sent from his grown daughter. Murray is best at deadpan; he does not hold us with a prolonged earnest gaze that is almost as interminable as the carol itself.
However, Cate Blanchett is remarkable as a French curator reluctant to disclose the locations of the stolen art to the American team. Her initial disdain for the Yanks, whom she suspects are no more ethical in their intent than the advancing Russians or the retreatng Germans, is communicated almost entirely by the way she holds her cigarette or purses her lips as the billows of gray contempt engulf her American inquisitor, Matt Damon.
Yet, with that exception, almost everyone else is flat. In Downton Abbey, Hugh Bonneville can be endearing even when he is stubbornly patronizing; but here even his death does not penetrate. His final act seems more mulishly inept than courageous.
We know John Goodman can steal the show with a minor part as he did in 2012’s Flight (Overnight Cinnamon Rolls) when he played an on-call drug dealer abounding with natural good cheer and all the artificial means to achieve it. In this film he seems sluggish, almost inert, as though he is phoning it in.
I fault the script that, for a lack of a better word, is soupy. It is both bland and watery. Where we might expect wit we get humor that seems forced and clumsy, such as the scene where Matt Damon stands frozen with his foot on a land mine. “Why would you do something like that” or words equally banal are repeated as his fellow monument men discover his predicament. It’s almost as if the unremarkable comment will become funny if they say it enough. Given that Clooney stars, directed, and scripted the Robert M. Edsel novel, is it no wonder some of his hitherto cheerleaders label this a vanity project.
Which is a shame, because the story is so good. Sadly, much better than the film. But even the film is filled with refreshing moments that make us want to cheer it on. For a change of pace, we Yanks are the good guys, the ones who risk our lives for art, not to loot it or steal it from other thieves, but to return it to the rightful owners.
The casual vulgarity that runs rampant in Hollywood today is nowhere to be seen; these blokes are gentleman, and mostly good family men, too.
One of the best scenes is Matt Damon’s gentle refusal of a shy and awkward seduction attempt by Blanchett, the dedicated art curator who has finally learned to trust the Yanks. He lets her down while leaving her dignity fully in tact.
Of course, not everyone wants to cheer on this wholesomeness. Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post oozes with contempt as he labels the film
...a farrago of Hollywood banalities that align remarkably well with standard-issue beliefs about capitalism, freedom and America. Struggle and you will succeed; everyone can rise above their demons; teamwork will lead to success; faith in yourself is the key to everything.
Perhaps that nostalgic patriotism is what irks the 65% of critics who give it negative ratings at Rotten Tomatoes. (By contrast, close to 60% of viewers have positive opinions.)
Put this critic in the people’s camp. Despite its uneven tone and self-indulgent missteps, this true story of America’s decency deserves an audience. In an age of cynicism, nihilism, and even dark despair, we need a “shred of goodness” to weave into our banner, ragged though it may be.
The Americans finally catch the SS officer who presided over the stolen art in occupied France, but it is almost by chance. A toothache takes Bill Murray to an accommodating German dentist, who says his nephew, just a common solder in the war, might help them locate some of the missing masterpieces. He did, after all, study art in Paris.
Of course, the originals that now hang upon the walls in his rural farmhouse do not fool the Monuments Men, and they are liberated while the secret SS officer is locked up. Even the suspicious curator, Cate Blanchett’s Claire, nurses the shadow of a smile as she reads about it in a Paris café.
She is now ready to trust Matt Damon’s James Granger, the American from whom she has hidden the meticulous records that tracked the locations and owners of the stolen treasures. Her invitation to dinner holds the promise of more than food.
Somehow our American is able to locate some brie, a fine French cheese, to share in the small apartment. Let’s help Claire stretch that to a meal of sorts with the help of a few rounds of puff pastry, some fig jam, and a few toasted almonds.
Baked Brie (Brie en croute)
You can make your baked brie recipes into individual bouchées for ease of serving at a cocktail party. Just cut the puff pastry and the cheese into smaller portions and assemble with a spoonful or so of jam and a sprinkle of almonds. Place on a baking sheet and bake for slightly less time - about 20 minutes.
2 rounds puff pastry
500 gram (about 1 pound) wheel of Brie cheese
1/2 cup fig jam
1/3 cup toasted slivered almonds
Loosely place one round of puff pastry in a tart or pie pan. Place the wheel of Brie on top; then spread the jam on top of this and a bit on the pastry. Sprinkle with the almonds and place the other pastry round on top. Roll the edges of the pastry rounds together to seal them.
Bake at 375°F or 190°C for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the pastry to cool for just a bit before slicing and serving. This should be served and eaten straight away, although you can warm leftovers in the microwave (watch out, it reheats very quickly).