The Last Skate Atelier

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Those Hollywood Dumpuary Blues

One great doc can't stop the fall of 'Monuments Men' or the cynicism of 'The Lego Movie'

There’s an audience for The Monuments Men. It’s a WWII drama in which George Clooney assembles a team of curators, historians, and museum directors, turns them into soldiers, and devises a plan to stop the Nazis from stealing Europe’s great art. Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Bob Balaban play the art experts. So do Jean Dujardin, of The Artist, and Hugh Bonneville, of Downton Abbey. Cate Blanchett makes long faces as a Parisian conscripted into doing clerical work for the SS. Clooney directed and cowrote this movie with his creative partner, Grant Heslov. (It’s based on a real, years-long mission — the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program — that Robert M. Edsel documented in a pair of books about purloined treasure during the war.)

Clooney applies an unflagging chumminess to nearly every scene. It’s the war film his astronaut from Gravity would have made. The camaraderie is played for gentle laughs. The score, by Alexandre Desplat, imitates the music in old Hollywood battle pictures — woodwinds pip, brasses gleam, tubas fart. When Clooney’s character, Frank Stokes, a dashing conservator, delivers a speech about the crux of the operation — to save the soul of civilization — a piano twinkles behind him. The whole movie has an unbearable lightness. As I said, there’s an audience for this movie. But that audience lives in 1964.

That might strike some moviegoers as complimentary. It might flatter Clooney, too. He’s directed five films. This one is the spiritual twin of his 2008 football screwball Leatherheads — both strive to embody bygone entertainment, just not artisanally. These aren’t vintage re-creations, the way you’d get with a younger director who just discovered, say, The Dirty Dozen. They’re not the explosive revisions of Quentin Tarantino, either. With Clooney, these throwbacks aren’t out to unpack antique craftsmanship or correct long-standing thematic problems. With him, it’s The Dirty Dozen with even less dirt.

The film spans more than two years, from the winter of 1943 to the spring of 1945. Yet whenever a new time card stamps the screen, you’re forced to ask where all those months went. Because descriptive filmmaking doesn’t come easily to Clooney, the characters actually have to explain everything. The men make their way around Europe in search of a couple of key pieces, including Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges. But Clooney doesn’t attach to the art any personal meaning or wonder. That sort of melodrama is beside the point to him.

Or maybe it’s been forced to seem beside the point. I can’t think of another movie that feels as simultaneously rushed and leisurely. There are three good sequences — one in a clearing with Goodman, Dujardin, and a horse; another with Murray and Balaban experiencing a stroke of luck in a farmhouse; the third puts one of the men on a land mine. The first two could have been elevated to greatness with some patience, just playing out the rhythm to enrich the suspense. That third sequence is perfect as it is, yet by the time it happens, all the jolliness and sense of moral purpose have drained the movie of real tension.

The Monuments Men feels like the intersection of The Good German and the three Ocean’s capers, all of which Steven Soderbergh directed, all of which feature Clooney. This is a film that could have used a little of Soderbergh’s chilliness to cut the mirth. Warren Beatty is the actor who produces and directs to whom Clooney has often been compared. They’re both liberals whose movies veer between politics and old-Hollywood fluff — two of Clooney’s other dramas were about Edward R. Murrow and a juicy presidential campaign. But Beatty’s grip on a genre was sure enough for him to riff on it. I think Clooney sees filmmaking as an opportunity to wag his finger — at philistines, at the past, at the present. There’s some subversion in that approach. Entertainment runs a distant second to point making. He seemed to know that the campaign movie of his, The Ides of March, from 2011, was trash. The trash is what some of us wanted, but he was ultimately too tasteful to dignify our lust. He tried to shame politics and us.

That’s the frustration with Clooney. His father, Nick, is a journalist, film historian, and politician. As a director, Clooney flatters his father, who plays an older version of Stokes briefly toward the end. The apple’s still hanging on the tree. It’s not for nothing that Clooney has cast himself as the conservator in The Monuments Men. He’s making the sort of movie no one makes anymore. He’s the keeper of several flames. But in doing so, he’s thinking past the audience and into Senate hearings and Festschrifts. He’s rigorously wow-averse. His films dramatize the distance between confidence and certitude, and how the latter denies any possibility of true levity or surprise. The Murrow movie, 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck, worked, more or less, because its moralizing came from the mouth of a moralist. It was resonant ventriloquism. Still, you never exit a George Clooney film satisfied that you’ve watched a movie. You go home feeling like you’ve just signed a petition.

The Monuments Men had been placed on last year’s holiday schedule and was moved off, the Hollywood version of benching a star player. Seeing it now, you understand why. Sometimes a perfectly competent film simply doesn’t come together in that alchemical way that a merely good movie needs to. Nothing blooms. This is the historical movie I think people feared Ben Affleck’s Argo would be: fine scenes that don’t add up. Part of the enthusiasm for the film had to do with the surprise (and relief) that Affleck, who’s really the modern Beatty, had pulled it off. Something bloomed.

That’s a cosmic-industrial reason for how The Monuments Men has been handled. There’s also the simple reality that Clooney and Heslov have misguided the movie to almost ideological ends. This is essentially an action-adventure film. But Clooney plays it as a tract. Once again, he’s appealing to our better selves with a work of classicism. But the trouble with his ideas of the classics is that they don’t feel as if he’s learning anything. He’s lecturing. The Monuments Men actually opens and closes with Clooney behind a lectern pointing to images on a screen. That captures the George Clooney moviegoing experience. Leave the popcorn. Bring a notebook.

♦♦♦

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It seems almost unfair to open a WWII trifle like The Monuments Men, which is careful to graze the particulars of the Holocaust, in the same week a new Claude Lanzmann documentary arrives. But The Last of the Unjust has begun making its way around the country, with its nearly four-hour running time; outrageously compelling subject, Benjamin Murmelstein; and tour de force discourse. Murmelstein was an Austrian Jew forced, by Adolf Eichmann, into the terrible assignment of helping run the Theresienstadt Ghetto.

In 1975, Lanzmann met with Murmelstein for a series of interviews that went mostly unused for his Holocaust landmark, Shoah. The nest of moral and ethical questions raised by Murmelstein’s role at the camp warrants the full Lanzmann treatment. I wrote about the film last spring, and my feelings about it haven’t changed. It still has an inexorable force. Murmelstein, meanwhile, proves a vexing encryption of a man, even to a master prosecutor like Lanzmann. The central debates about culpability and betrayal are riveting, wearing, and, finally, depressing. Clooney’s movie searches ruins looking for art. Lanzmann’s art arises from scouring adjacent atrocity in pursuit of answers. His documentary doesn’t deserve an audience so much as demand one.

♦♦♦

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When does an animated family movie have to surrender to the realities of family entertainment? Can it be too cool for its own good? I thought about that while watching The Lego Movie. By family standards, it is, first, an epic of sorts. The film’s been made to seem as if it were built entirely of Lego blocks and pieces. The simulation mixes computer animation, a kind of stop-motion, and what appears to be the painstaking manual labor of working with actual Legos. And the effects occasionally produce magic — like whenever water and suds run, they gush as tiny Lego bricks. Often, though, the simulation just seems, well, simulated.

But the film itself has the archness of something aimed at people predisposed to despise a smart, fitfully earnest movie like Frozen. Cynicism drives The Lego Movie. It focuses on a himbo construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt) who’s mistaken as a savior akin to Neo in The Matrix. Emmet’s dragged all over Lego Land by a questing punk named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and a holy Moses called Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), just like the ancient Roman architect. They’re joined by a split-personality Hello Kitty–like cat (Alison Brie), a goofball spaceman (Charlie Day), and a pirate (Nick Offerman) operating what could be a Jaeger from Pacific Rim. They’re all trying to stop an egomaniacal CEO from taking over the world. He’s a suit on stilts called President Business. His voice belongs to Will Ferrell, and the red tie and wooden manner would seem to belong to Mitt Romney. His henchman is another dual personality played by Liam Neeson. They all move with the blockish gracelessness you expect from a Lego figurine.

The directors are Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the pair responsible for the shocking hilarity of the 21 Jump Street movie. I laughed at this movie, too. Freeman and Neeson find their respective self-parody sweet spots, and the whole thing is almost stolen by a narcissistic Batman, played by Will Arnett with his voice scraping the earth. But I got tired of laughing, which never happened with 21 Jump Street. It wasn’t the idea of a studio raiding its vault for satire (most of the fictional references I’ve mentioned are Warner Bros. properties, even, loosely, Hello Kitty). It wasn’t the idea that the movie is just a commercial for Legos, though I did think seriously more than once about how fun it might be to build myself a city some weekend.

I stopped laughing because after 20 minutes, I’d had enough. The conceit gets stale fast. If Michel Gondry’s all-Lego music video for the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” had lasted 100 minutes, the tidal wave of joy you get from that clip would dissipate, and all you would be is wet. I’d had enough of the cynicism, too. The movie wants to mock adventure movies and cartoons and disrespect family movies with “whatever, dude” cool: Emmet is an almost self-admitted idiot who’s happier being a drone. You sense that Lord and Miller want to make another piece of gonzo vulgarity, something ironically, riotously lewd like Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s all-marionette Team America: World Police. But The Lego Movie is as far as the studio would allow them to go. Any real anarchy actually feels suppressed. So you doubt its sincerity. Once the film breaks into a long, would-be climactic live-action interlude with Ferrell as a neglectful dad, I threw my hands up. Emmet tells Wyldstyle, “I never have any ideas.” Lord and Miller run out of fresh ones fast.

♦♦♦

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It does, of course, feel churlish to complain about an animated movie this physically ambitious and fun (while it lasts) when something as dreary and heartless as The Nut Job is out there. This movie purports to be a caper adventure featuring park rodents trying to steal sacks of nuts from human gangsters. The whole thing looks like a video game you’d rather not play. There are poor nut puns, an idiot bulldog, and two heists that take too long to execute. There’s also a curiously erotic moment in which the hero — a sour, selfish squirrel (Arnett, again) — stops pushing away his mute rat friend and makes unexplained eye contact with him for several long seconds. Some other characters break up the moment, and the squirrel pushes the rat out of the frame. That’s not even subtext.

I saw The Nut Job with a 5-year-old who’s newly obsessed with giving his food and movies star ratings. He spent the walk home wondering aloud why the gangsters were shooting guns and why the movie ended with a cartoon Psy doing “Gangnam Style” over the closing credits. For a child, that is the musical equivalent of putting bacon on a manure sandwich. “Two stars!” cried my 5-year-old friend.

How this movie happened at all is far more perplexing than the failure of Clooney’s movie. With animated children’s entertainment, we’ve reached a point at which quality might not matter at all. If you can keep the price tag down (The Nut Job has already grossed more than its reported $42 million budget), there’s money to be made no matter how junky and derivative it is. Even the voice work is miserable. Neeson, villainous again, joins Arnett and a miscast Katherine Heigl. Arnett and Neeson sound as if they’re having the time of their lives in The Lego Movie. Here, they sound like they want to hide. They should.

Filed Under: Movies

Welsey!

Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

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