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Is ‘Monuments Men’ Too Much a Mix of Art and Commerce?

Clooney's latest movie is a mashup of comedy caper and serious message film, belying the filmmaker's intention to keep the two separate in his career

MEMO: TO GEORGE CLOONEY

Your Clooney movie machine is purring along smoothly, George, with “Gravity,” which you co-produced, poised to reap further largesse from the Oscars. You will shortly start “Tomorrowland,” a sci-fi megapic from director Brad Bird. And “Monuments Men” has opened to respectable numbers in the U.S., and aspires to stronger ones overseas.

But before we gloss over that last movie. … As a filmmaker who has feasted off worshipful reviews for most of your career, George, the critical whiplash that greeted “Monuments Men” surely took you by surprise. I hope so anyway, because this might be a good moment for you to reassess a key aspect of your filmmaking strategy.

The WWII-set film, which you wrote, directed and starred in, offers a compelling story, a noble message and an inspired cast. Trouble is, it’s a dark war movie haphazardly married to an unwieldy comedy caper. It’s as though you started on a remake of John Frankenheimer’s “The Train” and then decided to mix in some scenes from “Ocean’s Eleven.”

You once explained to me, George, that you intended to keep the two sectors of your film career completely separate — your “Ocean’s Eleven” works of commerce would faithfully support your “Good Night, and Good Luck” art pictures. It sounded like a deft business plan — but in “Monuments Men” you let the two sectors crash into each other.

The movie asks a serious question: Is saving a great objet d’art worth the cost of a human life? But it ducks another question: Should a film on a serious theme be delivered within a caper movie?

In the blizzard of pre-release publicity, your co-producer, Grant Heslov, pointed out that some films you’ve starred in seemed “rudderless” in their direction, adding, “George, by contrast, has a deft hand and very strong point of view.”

Well, not this time.

While you and Heslov did extensive research on Nazi art thefts, I wish you’d also taken the time to revisit some classic films — which brings us back to “The Train.” That film, which starred Jeanne Moreau and Burt Lancaster, also dealt with Nazi art theft, but it was framed within a tough suspense film. There were no odd little bits of business with Bill Murray or Bob Balaban, and no Matt Damon jokes about bad French accents.

Which brings us to another question, George: Why are you (and Heslov) insistent on writing your own scripts? There’s a new book out about Paddy Chayefsky, titled “Mad as Hell: The Making of Network.” Authored by Dave Itzkoff, it reminds us of that era when the profession of screenwriting was revered, and some top writers could actually get a movie made.

In “Network,” Chayefsky warned against “comicalizing” serious information, adding, “To make a gag out of the news is disreputable and destructive.” Of course, Chayefsky brought to films like “Hospital” and “Network” both anger and irony — elements that go missing from “Monuments Men.”

In writing your own script, George, I realize you are in sympathy with contemporary filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and David O. Russell, who take pride in the fact that dialogue and scene structure emerge from interactions with cast members rather than from the dictates of screenplays.

Well that process may work from time to time, but frankly, much of the dialogue in “Monuments Men” made me miss the professional screenwriters of an earlier Hollywood era. In fact, elements of that more classical style may be as worth preserving as the objets d’art uncovered by your stalwart “Monuments Men.”

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