Does George Clooney have an insouciance problem? At 52, the actor has achieved a mature gravitas that usually works for him; he’s the king of unflappable charm and a poster boy for American suavity. But any film written, produced and directed by its star can be fairly said to represent that individual, and Clooney’s The Monuments Men is more dapper than dramatic, more urbane than urgent. A World War II elite-soldiers-on-a-mission movie should, at least once in a while, make our pulse quicken. This one’s almost … calming. Instead of adrenaline, the film seems to be overdosing on its leading man: too much Vitamin C.
Based on a true story, Monuments Men has art on the brain – specifically, the priceless European cultural artifacts Hitler wanted for himself and that Allied air strikes placed in a different kind of jeopardy. Clooney plays an art expert who personally convinces FDR to allow him to recruit a band of fellow learned enthusiasts to go behind enemy lines and rescue some masterpieces. (It’s Saving Private Renoir!) The film stacks its deck with a remarkable cast – Clooney’s crew includes Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett even shows up for a while – but no one generates much of a pulse. Combat is supposed to be exciting, but even the deaths of some major characters barely register. The Monuments Men is well-intentioned, competently produced, eminently witty, and a real snooze.
The LEGO Movie, on the other hand, is the best kind of film: An out-of-nowhere delight. Who would have thought a 90-minute product placement extravaganza could be so relaxed, confident and fun? But the directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller are getting good at confounding our expectations – Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs beat the kids’-movie odds with inventive glee, and their comic adaptation of the 1980s relic 21 Jump Street offered parody with smarts and confidence. And frankly, if they can make America jump for joy over an epic comic saga of plastic bricks, I’m not sure anything is beyond them.
The animated film uses its derivativeness to its advantage – mashing up Star Wars, The Matrix, Tron and other well-worn hits to create a familiar stew that doesn’t require much explaining. Emmett (Chris Pratt), a plastic drone in LEGO world, embraces his humdrum life until he’s branded a “Special” by a rebel team – they’re out to stop Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from an evil scheme involving an enigmatic super weapon. What follows is a candy-colored CGI extravaganza – cleverly filmed to look as if the entire film was shot with LEGO pieces, but with the fluid grace of cutting-edge animation. More importantly, though, the story expertly straddles the line between kid-friendly themes and adult sophistication. Like the earworm tune that provides a boffo musical number, everything is awesome in The LEGO Movie: It’s a good time.
(IMAGES: The Monuments Men, photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures; The LEGO Movie, photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)