Is art worth dying for? That was the question facing the Allies in the later days of WW2 when Hitler retreated through Europe, looting and finally burning everything he found in museums and galleries along the way.
Deciding that the history and culture of an entire civilisation was exactly what everyone had just been dying for, the US Army assembled a team of ageing art experts to join the front line and find Europe’s national treasures before the Nazis (and the Russians) did.
With a bunch of pompous professors strapping on helmets to rescue Rembrandts whilst the war raged on around them, the bizarre true story seems to have been begging for the Hollywood treatment since 1945. Awkwardly straddling the line between comedy and drama, George Clooney retells the story pretty much as it happened, in a mildly interesting, yet slightly dull take on a chapter of the war that definitely deserves better.
It certainly looks like a comedy. There’s Clooney rolling his eyebrows over a giant Dad’s Army map; Bill Murray and John Goodman squeezing into uniforms and struggling over obstacle courses; Matt Damon trying out his pidgin-French on Jean Dujardin; and Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical whistling theme sounding like something from Last Of The Summer Wine.
The only trouble is, there aren’t any jokes. When Clooney starts delivering over-earnest speeches and the gang starts actually getting shot at, it doesn’t even look like you’re supposed to laugh – although any genuine emotional attachment is out of the question too.
After all the stories of Clooney and co having a great time together pulling pranks on set, it’s quite amazing how little chemistry translates to the screen. Leap-frogging the patchy story all over Europe every couple of minutes, no one is ever in the same place long enough to even look like a team.
Murray gets stuck in the woods with Bob Balaban, Dujardin and Goodman almost get into a few hairy/amusing scrapes in Germany, Hugh Bonneville does a couple of semi-poignant monologues in a Belgian church and Damon sexlessly flirts with Cate Blanchett (sporting a Brie-thick French accent) in a Parisian apartment.
Looking much too comfortable both in front and behind the camera, Clooney takes the sharp edges of Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, the screwball comedy of Leatherheads and the stylish scripting of Good Night, And Good Luck and ditches them all in favor of coasting through an old-fashioned afternoon war movie that only barely holds itself together with A-list glue.
An amazing story and an amazing cast don’t always make an amazing film. Too light for drama, not funny enough for comedy; it’s unlikely anyone will ever risk their lives for this.