While George Clooney certainly keeps his game up with his acting ability, with The Monuments Men his directorial efforts are already starting to wane. He’s come a long way since his days on ER, but maybe he really should stick to acting. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was a great debut—undoubtedly assisted by the use of a Charlie Kaufman screenplay—and Good Night, and Good Luck certainly made him a director to watch. But his screwball throwback Leatherheads failed to continue his winning streak and does anyone even remember The Ides of March? Unfortunately, Clooney puts forth his most lackluster film yet with The Monuments Men.
It’s World War II and while the war may be winding down, Hitler and his Nazis are plundering every piece of art they can find to be kept for his upcoming Führer Museum. Their latest conquest was the taking of the Ghent Altarpiece. This causes Frank Stokes (Clooney) to talk President Roosevelt (Michael Dalton, seen and heard only from behind) into letting him gather a group of museum directors, curators, and historians to find the stolen art and return it to its rightful owners. With the help of James Rorimer (Matt Damon), Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Pvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), French Lt. Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and British Major Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), they set out to complete their mission.
When it was announced that The Monuments Men was getting pushed back from its original release date to February, thus negating its Oscar consideration, it came with the excuse that Clooney wouldn’t be able to finish his visual effects in time. Turns out he didn’t want the film to bomb harder than it probably will. There’s absolutely nothing Oscar-worthy here.
A colleague pointed out the biggest flaw walking out of the screening, “You know the film is in trouble when your only chance for character-building is plowed over with an opening credits montage.” You never once care for any of these men. Clooney simply made sure to cast familiar actors because he never bothered to write (along with partner-in-crime Grant Heslov) any kind of characterization. I almost forgot to mention, Cate Blanchett is also in it. See, I almost forgot—a complete waste of a great cast.
To make matters worse, the film plays its tone like a pinball machine. Don’t worry about which feelings you’re supposed to have—Clooney has Alexandre Desplat employ his score to dictate them for you. One minute it’s wacky, then it’s dramatic, careening back to patriotic. Clooney also stages a lot of the movie like a second-rate Inglourious Basterds. You could even call it the worst sequel ever. Maybe cinematographer Phedon Papamichael is to blame for the look, but as director, Clooney is the real culprit. It’s ironic that the film makes such a big deal about getting the art back from Hitler because, by destroying culture, he eradicates everything about it, yet here Clooney is ripping off other movies.
The Monuments Men could have used a dash more humor to carry the plot along. When Murray and Balaban receive Christmas gifts from home, maybe throw in a can of Dapper Dan. Or when Murray has to visit a German dentist, they could’ve cast Steve Martin for a Little Shop of Horrors reunion. Too jokey? Perhaps, but at least it would have shown a hint of cleverness. Alas, all of these ideas are far better than anything Clooney has cobbled together for his first true misfire in the director’s chair.
The Monuments Men may have been on an important mission. The end of the film beats you over the head with whether it was worth losing men in battle, asking if anyone will remember them. Thankfully, the real-life heroes will be. Their own film is a total misfire.
Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures