DIR: George Clooney • WRI: George Clooney, Grant Heslov • PRO: George Clooney, Grant Heslov • DOP: Phedon Papamichael •ED: Stephen Mirrione • MUS: Alexandre Desplat • DES: James D. Bissell • CAST: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray
It’s impossible not to view The Monuments Men in advance as some sort of ‘Ocean’s 14’/Dad’s Army comedy caper, and George Clooney’s overwhelming presence certainly cements that. Thanks to the relentlessly enthusiastic trailer that’s been pumped on every screen, it’s also managed to conjure The Great Escape – if only because of the incessantly jarring jaunty music. While it does manage some capering, and even surprises with sporadic comedy chuckles, it tends to jump-ship too shrilly into the dramatically saccharine to really feel cohesive overall.
It begins with the premise (based on a true story) that a bunch of older patrons of the arts fly into Europe as the Second World War is drawing to a close in order to save priceless works of art from first German hands, then German flames, then Russian commanders. This is of course very admirable, and any effort to save symbols of a beautiful humanity at a time when nations appeared devoid of it has huge resonance, but the movie can’t seem to really trust itself in its central idea that art has this much value. It’s left, then, to the occasional monotonous soliloquy from George Clooney as he details the myriad reasons we should want art preserved, and why this bunch of Americans should be the ones to do it. Since his band of merry men is made up of Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and Bob Balaban the rest of the movie is spent making sure each character has had a caper, a comic pratfall, a sentimental moment, and some drama. Side characters appear to have more interesting storylines, like Cate Blanchett’s French resistance curator, which leaves the movie floundering for where its forward momentum should come from. Focusing on a single statue as the symbol of redemption does little to appease the gnawing feeling that, apart from hyperbolic German histrionics and sardonic Russian smirks, these men are in a personal conflict without opposition.
Clooney has talked about this movie as a labour of love, and it’s clear to see that he has drawn influence from older movies – something he mentions when discussing his reasoning behind bringing this story to life. It’s very much his version of ‘how it used to be’ – and no better man to attempt it, considering his charisma and screen presence. But what was once charming is now bordering on smarmy, and Monuments Men suffers as a result. Throwing in dramatic moments for the sake of it – because remember, we’re at war! – seems tacked-on, and the movie’s insistence on jingoist drama and moments of anti-German and anti-Russian patriotism just don’t quite cut it. A caper that goes wrong I can handle, a caper that ends in tragedy equally so, but a caper that stops and starts at all the wrong moments with ill-fitting intensity and drama just ends up being no kind of caper at all.
While not the worst movie I’ve seen this year, it’s an eminently forgettable one. What Monuments Men highlights, more than anything, is the Clooney effect: how to attract a stellar cast to mediocre roles in a movie that never reaches the sum of its parts.