In theaters Friday, February 7
1 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
Not even the magnificent George Clooney is immune to failure. And in this fact-based World War II–set drama, the Oscar winner crashes as an actor, director and cowriter of a woefully lazy script.
The lack of ingenuity is obvious from the get-go. Clooney, who's grown into quite a versatile actor over the past decade, gives himself a role that he could phone in from his living room in Lake Cuomo. As professor Frank Stokes, he's simply quintessential Clooney: The charismatic and intelligent renegade leader with the gift of gab. Perhaps you might recognize him from his earlier work in ER, Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen, Up in the Air, The Perfect Storm, Gravity. . .
In the opening moments, he persuades President Roosevelt — this is 1944, after the invasion of Normandy — to let him extract the rare sculptures and paintings seized by the Nazis. He rounds up a merry band of art experts in a montage notable only for its familiarity. Yes, it's fair to say that Danny Ocean has ditched his Las Vegas crew and is heading to Europe with new misfits.
Matt Damon is on board, along with Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and John Goodman. Certainly, the casting does not disappoint; the actors' effort level does. They all sleepwalk through their rote roles, hindered by the lack of characteristics differentiating them. Wait, that's not quite right. Balaban is the one constantly ribbed because he’s an old lightweight. Dujardin has a French accent. (The search party is still looking for Murray and Goodman, both last seen mumbling in the woods.)
Damon has the most to do, which is to say he's stuck with the bulk of the stale dialogue. A running gag about his inability to speak fluent French lands with a thud each time the goofy subtitles flash onscreen. He also strikes up an ill-conceived flirtation with Cate Blanchett's stuffy art curator/resistance leader. Her character belongs in another movie entirely.
The platoon recovers the treasures in clunky episodic sequences devoid of energy and suspense. (Does anyone doubt these pros are not going to ultimately unearth the vaunted, much-talked-about Madonna statue?) And though two Men die along the way, the casualties feel like an afterthought because Clooney never finds the right tone between jaunty caper and Serious War Film. It's obvious to the eyes and the ears. In fact, the jolly musical score playing in the background after a scene in which a Nazi threatens violence is borderline offensive. A Nazi!
Clooney, of course, has noble intentions. And he makes sure we're all very well aware of this. In voice-overs, his character constantly defends the mission, droning on and on about the importance of high culture in society. That's fine. Just don't hold this picture up as an exhibit.