About 15 minutes into The Monuments Men, I started to wonder whether it's possible to be too charming. George Clooney? Charming. George Clooney in uniform? Utterly charming. George Clooney getting the gang together for one last caper in war-torn Europe? Oops, maybe charm has just shot itself in the foot.
Getting reckless with the multi-hyphenates, writer-director-producer-star Clooney is trying so hard to make this film likeable that almost nobody likes it. The critics are cranky (the current Rotten Tomatoes rating is a dismal 34 per cent), and audiences aren't much happier (their RT score comes in at 56 per cent).
The book on which The Monuments Men is based, by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, shines a light on the scale of Nazi art theft during the Second World War, and on the work of Allied art historians, curators and restorationists who tried to protect Europe's art and architecture from the ravages of combat. It's a terrific true story squandered by Clooney's fatally charming film.
Of course, Clooney's charm didn't start out as a liability. It took him from ho-hum TV roles to the Hollywood A-list, and in its pure form, it's astonishing. Once, while on a movie junket in Los Angeles, I briefly shared an elevator with Clooney. It was disconcerting to discover that he is one of those celebrities who is better-looking in real life. But it's more than that. The man's charm is visible: It's as if he's surrounded by a shimmering force field of charged charm particles. I actually felt a little faint.
Clooney's an on-screen charmer, and he's managed to extend that to his off-screen persona as well. Magazine profiles of the star almost always end up with some variation of the "women want him, men want to play pickup basketball with him" trope. Clooney suggests a touch of Old Hollywood glamour with a modern edge of self-deprecating irony. That's charming.
Some of Clooney's best roles showcase the straight-up version of his charming-man mode. Out of Sight, an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, is an early example and a swell one. "You really wear that suit," Jennifer Lopez tells Clooney. He's also good at not wearing it.
Once his star was firmly in the heavens, Clooney sometimes tried to tamp down his charm, usually in the interests of roles that stretched him as an actor. Bearded George is usually cinematic shorthand for Serious George. In The American, a salt-and-pepper beard and a shocking opening scene make it immediately clear that this is not the genial actor we're used to. Another variation, the Heavy-set Bearded George seen in Syriana, was a clear (and successful) bid for an Oscar.
Casting against type doesn't always work. Sometimes when Clooney tries to bury his charm, his performance just shuts down. In Solaris, a misguided remake of the metaphysical sci-fi classic, it's almost as if concentrating on not being charming is taking so much of Clooney's energy that he has nothing else to offer.
At other times, Clooney spoofs his charm, as well as his ridiculous handsomeness. His O Brother, Where Art Thou? character is a comic portrayal of overweening vanity, so fussed over his hair that he sleeps in a hairnet and has conniption fits about pomade. ("I'm a Dapper Dan man!")
One of Clooney's best performances is probably in Up in the Air, in which he deftly deconstructs his own charm. Playing a corporate downsizing expert -- basically he flies around the country firing people -- he suggests a man who uses his polished looks and manner to deflect human connection.
Clooney needs to be wary. The dangers of coasting on charm can be seen in the steep fall-off of the Ocean's Eleven series. The first neo-Rat Pack outing was kind of fun. It felt like Clooney and his gang of good-looking friends were just getting together in various glamorous locations and bringing us along. How charming is that?
But by the second and third film, this formula felt forced. The endless press stories about how the cast was just having a ball -- oh, the merry pranking, the incessant teasing of Matt Damon -- started sounding tired. And the movies felt more like exclusive parties to which the audience hadn't been invited.
This almost compulsive need to charm viewers really backfires in The Monuments Men. The film has a jarringly inappropriate Ocean's Eleven vibe, from the putting-together-the-team montage to Bob Balaban and Bill Murray's misfiring Little and Large act. And then there's Clooney himself, using his considerable smooth-talking charm to lecture us about how Nazis are bad. (Thanks for that, George.)
There's also the belaboured sense, borrowed again from Ocean's Eleven, that making the movie involved Clooney just hanging out with his cool pals. He's working with longtime writing partner Grant Heslov and frequent co-star Damon. Unfortunately, it doesn't take much for charming camaraderie to cross over into uncritical cronyism. Clooney could have used someone telling him to do a few more rewrites. If he's not careful he'll turn into a classier version of Adam Sandler.
Clooney has built up a career by turning on the charm. At this point, his biggest challenge might be learning how to turn it off.