In “The Monuments Men,” George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Jean Dujardin play scholars and curators pursuing art stolen by the Nazis. This is during World War II. Technically, they’re soldiers — they wear uniforms and carry weapons — but these monuments men are military men in name only.
As if to underscore the characters’ oddball double life, Clooney, who directed and co-wrote the script, with Grant Heslov, has sown the movie with a scattering of similarly oddball pairings.
In an early scene, Clooney’s character explains to President Franklin D. Roosevelt why a group like the monuments men is needed. Clooney wears civvies and has a beard (shades of “Syriana”). Next time we see him, he’s in uniform and has a mustache (shades of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). More to the point, that mustache summons up Clark Gable, the Studio Age leading man Clooney’s so often been compared to. In an even nicer touch, it’s Clooney’s father, Nick, who plays the character in a flash-
Later in the movie, a three-way standoff involves Murray, Balaban, and a German soldier. Think of it as a Clooney homage to Quentin Tarantino. Elaborate standoffs have become as much a Tarantino trademark as directorial cameos are in Alfred Hitchcock pictures.
The most elegant pairing involves not a person but a painting. We see a group of Italian civilians working in Milan to rescue Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (pictured) from bomb damage. An image of the painting fills the screen — but we start to hear Clooney’s voice on the soundtrack. What gives? “The Last Supper” still fills the screen, but now it’s a slide of the painting that we see. Clooney the actor is projecting it at the White House for the benefit of FDR. Clooney the director is projecting it for the benefit of transition: The art makes for an artfully seamless cut.