Monday, June 16, 2014

Clooney Disappoints With Disjointed and Treacly "The Monuments Men"

The Monuments Men has a hell of a cast.
I expected to love The Monuments Men.

It features a plethora of actors I adore in George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, and John Goodman. It's based on a fascinating, true-life story about a platoon of art historians and curators tasked with reclaiming and returning art Hitler pillaged during WWII after it was discovered he planned to destroy it all if he lost the war. And it's written, directed and produced by Clooney, a Hollywood icon with eclectic tastes and a consistent desire to work on quality films.
And yet, having finally seen it, I have to say I'm disappointed. It's good in spurts and looks fantastic, but it's a tonal, episodic mess that's far too preachy and treacly for its own good. 
In case the trailer didn't give it away, The Monuments Men is a message movie. It has a theme -- art and culture are important to defining who we are and are worth risking your neck for -- and it hits that theme hard. 

Conceptually, that's a good thing, but unfortunately the film goes overboard on the sentimentality, straining for poignancy at every turn. The film's heart is in the right place, but it has too much on-the-nose monologuing and a laughable denouement that's a direct descendant of the one from the otherwise splendid Saving Private Ryan. The end result is a product that feels awfully artificial.
Meanwhile, the tone of the film is all over the place. Clooney seems to be going for the jauntiness of Ocean's 11 mixed with the schmaltz of a Capra film, which doesn't play to his strengths as a writer/director. Clooney has proven adept at serious civic lessons (Good Night, and Good Luck), but inept at light comedy (Leatherheads). Unfortunately, mixing the two together doesn't really work.
Bill Murray and Bob Balaban do a lot with a little, which I guess is
kind of their thing in general, so why not here.
All that being said, The Monuments Men's biggest problem is it's lack of narrative drive. The script breaks its characters into teams, sending them off on various objectives that don't really build toward anything in the way tasks would in a heist film along the lines of the Ocean films. This results in a movie that feels like a loosely connected series of vignettes, some of which are interesting, most of which feel like wheel spinning and all of which don't coalesce into a dynamic whole. The film has more in common with the likes of Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve than was probably intended.
The tandem of Murray and Bob Balaban get all the best material. There's a nice scene in which the two stumble into a Mexican standoff of sorts with an SS soldier, another where Murray gets emotional over a recorded message sent from his family at Christmas, and a third where the two come across a former Nazi we know to be a baddie but they do not. Each scene with these guys is interesting -- sadly that cannot be said about the rest of the Monuments Men.
Actually, that's not entirely fair -- Hugh Bonneville gets some nice grace notes to play in his brief role as a washed out alcoholic who gets a second chance to make something of himself as part of this operation. But the rest is pretty piss poor. Goodman and Jean Dujardin, last seen together on screen in The Artist, get the shortest shrift with a collection of scenes that add up to very little and aren't even involving or cute in and of themselves (a factor that saves many of the vignettes featuring the likes of Clooney, Damon and Blanchett). 
Thinking on the film, I'm left to wonder if this story might have made for a better documentary. In such a context, the disjointed nature wouldn't seem so bad, and more time could've been spent with historians and the men themselves (or, at the very least, their descendants).
As it is, this is a flawed film that mostly wastes the assembled talent because the script doesn't really work on the macro level, despite some micro successes. I'd still rather have my movie stars working on whiffs like this than lower ceiling cookie cutter crap, but The Monuments Men just didn't work for me. C+