As the Reich crumbles, the German army is under orders from Hitler to destroy everything. In a race against time, a crew of seven art historians and museum curators are tasked with recovering renowned art works stolen by Nazis. They need to cross the enemy line before the masterpieces are destroyed.

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Such a dull frame for a fine premise.

2.5 stars

BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL: You might consider this, George Clooney’s fifth directorial feature, a middlebrow, middle-aged version of The Avengers—with Clooney himself in the Clark Gregg role, assiduously putting together his dream-team of art-world superheroes in order to combat an all-conquering global menace. They’re an admirably interdisciplinary lot: there’s an architect, a sculptor, a professional restorer, a painting instructor (from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, no less!) and, er, a Broadway impresario… because why not. And their mission is both a noble and important one: to safeguard important European cultural artefacts from theft and/or destruction by the Nazis.

The film’s timing, at least, could hardly be faulted. The announcement—just days after its Berlin premiere—of a further 60 stolen paintings, Monets and Renoirs and Piccasos discovered in the Salzburg home of the son of a Nazi-era art dealer, and valued at an estimated $1.35 billion, only served to remind us how much of our cultural history has been looted, misappropriated and lost.

Mostly, though, this story is interesting because it’s true: Clooney’s character, Fogg Museum art historian Frank Stokes, is based on real-life Harvard curator Georges Stout, who founded the actual Monuments, Fine Art and Archives Programme for the US government in 1943. (Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov adapted the tale from Robert Edsel’s book-length account of the programme.)

Yet, as delivered here, there’s a weirdly implausible feel to the entire enterprise. The first worrying sign is his character’s new name: why Stokes, exactly? Why not simply play the real George Stout? Immediately—and ironically, given the subject-matter—the approach smacks of contrivance. A fake, rather than an original.

It’s not helped by some overly-predictable casting—Clooney has basically rounded up a few of his buddies—and, with it, a fundamental uncertainty of tone. Flashes of jaunty comedy sit oddly with the broader historical drama: one minute we’re being told (at some length) about the vast existential threat the Nazis pose, not only to art but to civilisation itself… and the next, we’re watching Matt Damon goofing around in a cave. It never seems to settle on what kind of film it wants to be: a suspenseful drama, à la John Frankenheimer’s 1964 The Train (which tackled the same subject-matter, though far more powerfully), or a wartime Ocean’s 11; a thriller or a caper. That is, until the very end, when it tips finally into sanctimoniousness.

I’m not even sure what the point of the movie is, since the heroes are not especially heroic and their adventures, while admirable, aren’t all that thrilling. There’s a slackness to the pacing that no amount of cross-cutting can quite conceal, and a corresponding lack of depth to the characterisations, which rarely rise above the perfunctory. (The exception: one lovely moment as Bill Murray listens to a recording of his grandchildren singing, which Clooney has the good sense to shoot in a single, unbroken close-up.) Some of the performances are uneven: Cate Blanchett does no better, as a primly patriotic French curator, than she did as a Berlin Jew in Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German—where she was also paired with Clooney; their collaborations, so far, have not exactly been auspicious ones. And Jean Dujardin, for some reason, never seems to be in quite the same movie as his co-stars.

The Great Works themselves are mostly conspicuous by their absence; for a film about the awe-inspiring magnificence of art, there’s precious little of it shown onscreen. Worse still, neither of its central contentions—masterpieces are precious, Nazis are evil—are exactly controversial ones; these truths, as they say, are generally held to be self-evident.

The result is high-minded and fundamentally conservative; it’s handsome, ‘quality’ filmmaking that nonetheless feels inert and sententious. Watching it, I yearned for the energy, the radical irreverence of his first feature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. That film was slightly underrated at the time, dismissed by some critics as mere Soderbergh-lite—but there’s nothing wrong with an actor learning from his favourite director; before his filmmaking ossified into irrelevance, Clint Eastwood—by his own admission—copped most of his best moves from former mentor Don Siegel. A hugely promising debut, Confessions felt alive, alert, in a way this one conspicuously does not. (Tellingly, it also boasted a terrific script, by Charlie Kaufman.)

It gives me no pleasure to write this. Clooney and Damon are two of the contemporary actors I most admire—and Murray and John Goodman are two of modern American cinema’s most singular (and beloved) screen presences. You want them to do well; you root for them in a way that you don’t for, say, Jared Leto, or Sean Penn. But something is missing here, some vital spark or animating energy. Clooney has a reputation as a prankster and a cut-up—whether, as a lengthy New Yorker profile a few years back revealed, from a sense of social obligation, a desire to buoy conviviality, or (as one friend who knows him maintains) out of a latent, perhaps unacknowledged passive-aggression. But whatever the reason, his own movies increasingly represent a paradox: they’re personal projects that seem antithetical, somehow, to their maker’s own personality. Maybe he needs to bring some of that sense of mischief back to his filmmaking.