Film review: The Monuments Men is slow to tell a compelling story

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George Clooney (left) stars in and directs The Monuments Men, in which aging military recruits go on a mission to rescue cultural artifacts from the Nazis. George Clooney (left) stars in and directs The Monuments Men, in which aging military recruits go on a mission to rescue cultural artifacts from the Nazis.

The poster for George Clooney’s The Monuments Men has that wow factor. Not the poster itself—a bunch of guys standing next to each other smirking or stony-faced is kind of dull. But look at the names on the left. Clooney. Matt Damon. Bill Murray. John Goodman. Jean Dujardin. Bob Balaban. Hugh Bonneville. Cate Blanchett.

Now, that’s a cast. How was this movie not released in November or December last year to qualify for Awards season?

The answers come quickly once the picture starts rolling. The Monuments Men suffers from the same affliction as Clooney’s last few directing efforts, starting with Leatherheads: a crippling lack of stakes, an uneasy grasp of comedy, and a lackadaisical touch with the drama. What happened to the man who helmed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck?

The story itself is a worthy one. Frank Stokes, sometime in 1943, pitches President Roosevelt on the idea that the great works of art Adolf Hitler is stealing for his in-the-works Führer’s Museum need to be recovered. Roosevelt agrees, and because there are no young men available for the job—they’re all fighting the war—it’s up to Clooney and a gang of olds to the do the work themselves. That explains how guys such as Goodman, Murray, and Balaban end up in basic training.

Problems in the movie’s tone spring up immediately. The score, by the normally reliable Alexandre Desplat, is too military bouncy and cheery, and at all the wrong times. It seems as if Desplat and Clooney were going for a tribute to Elmer Bernstein’s music from The Great Escape, but instead wound up with outtakes from his score for Murray’s role in Stripes.

Another problem is the ease with which the Monuments Men accomplish everything. There are no stakes. When Damon, who speaks French (poorly), goes to France to liaise with a curator he knows, he’s greeted with a wave and a smirk by a couple of French Resistance volunteers. Voila! Infiltration complete!

Then there’s the sequence in which Bonneville, as an English lieutenant, asks a captain for a ride to Bruges to check on the status of Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child.” The captain says “no,” so Bonneville rides a bike into town and avoids the Germans easily, because, you know, why not?

There are powerful moments, as when Murray receives a phonograph message from his family back home and Balaban surprises him by playing it over their camp’s loudspeaker, all while Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov (playing an army doctor) try to save a mortally wounded soldier.

But most of Clooney’s directing choices seem inspired by the Steven Soderbergh school of cool—which is the school that made all the Oceans pictures. Clooney would have been better off borrowing from the Soderbergh who made Out of Sight—arguably Clooney’s best movie as a star—and certainly a movie that understands the delicate balance between humor and violence.

Would Soderbergh have had a character step on a land mine and say he’d done it because it was a slow day? Would he have miscast Blanchett? Probably not. The Monuments Men has the elements of a great motion picture but those elements are, unfortunately, obscured.

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  • Bruno Hob

    All fair. Can’t agree that he miscast Blanchett, however. A truly great (film) actress, she elevates and enhances any role she’s in and is the best thing in this movie. Riveting.

  • ruminator

    The book was great, but this film lacked pathos, irony, surprise or even momentum. It was dull, preachy and superficial.

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