When monuments men was delayed from award season to a early February release it didn’t cause too much concern. The line that the film wasn’t quite ready seemed plausible, since there’s no way a film with this cast, taking place in WWII and featuring Nazis (Nazis make movies better, see: Indian Jones trilogy) could really be all that bad. It would be a nice break from the January doldrums, right?
Not so much. The Monuments Men is a movie in need of a story, which is odd because the true story its telling should be story enough. The problem is it isn’t, and no manner of Hollywood fluff to make the true story more “true” is really going to save it. What could is a bunch of banter between some of the best bantering actors in the business. Yea, not so much with that either.
The Monuments Men
Director: George Clooney
Release Date: February 7, 2014
History lesson time. Back in WWII the Nazi’s stole everyone’s art. Like everyone’s. Also, a war has a tendency to destroy things. In reaction to this as the war began to turn for the Allies the U.S. put together a group of people whose job it was to make sure that important pieces of art and architecture did not get destroyed, stolen or lost, and, hopefully found their way back to their rightful owners. This is the story that The Monuments Men tells.
The film boils down the actual events to a small team of key characters desperately searching through Europe for art. They’re led by Frank Stokes (George Clooney) and include James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Dongald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). The team splits up once they get to Europe, with Granger going to Paris to attempt to pry information out of art expert, and assistant for the Nazi art collector, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). This also acts as the film’s truly needless and poorly executed love story. As the team works to protect one or two items of art they realize the Nazis are moving all the art somewhere and they must find out where.
It really does sound like an incredibly intriguing plot, and considering that the search in real life eventually let to finding the Nazi’s entire gold reserve, effectively putting the final nail in the coffin for Germany, it really should be. The problem is that nothing ever actually seems to happen. Despite a fantastic cast the film has no forward momentum at all. Most of the scenes feel more like vignettes, and every attempt to pull at the heart strings (of which there are many) falls demoralizingly flat. We’re rushed into the premise, rushed through characters and rushed through the art, which is a bit ironic considering how important the film keeps telling us we should have a true and deep connection with the art we take in.
The really weird thing is how completely incongruous not caring about characters is with the actors that are on the screen. Your memory is telling you that you should be enjoying the back and forth between these guys and that because it is them you should be invested in their characters, but your memory just can do it. The screenplay, which clearly does not feature enough ad-libbing feels heavy on the actors who don’t seem to be able to move out from behind it. The only guy who really hits is, maybe not unexpectedly, Bill Murray. His “emotional scene” kind of hits home, though it was clearly designed to play during the film’s original holiday release.
What’s even odder is that Clooney’s direction is so incredibly bland for this film. From a guy who did wonders with Good Night, and Good Luck, The Monuments Men feels like a paint by numbers affair. This probably isn’t epitomized better than by the fact If you’re not an American solider then you’re evil, except for that one scene where we see that everyone is human. Clooney directs the film in such stark black and white affairs that you’re never able to get into what’s going on. By the time the big Nazi’s are bad speech comes in you’ve fully clicked over to cynical mode and there’s no way to pull out. Their inevitable success by the end of the film feels more like a bunch of dumb luck than a successful story.
It’s not like The Monuments Men is a horribly bad film. It’s just so plain that vanilla is more flavorful. There’s not spark between a cast that should be sparking enough to set of forest fires, and the story never starts so it can never get going. The Monuments Men is the kind of film you flip over to accidentally when searching through channels in a few years and think that maybe you should finally watch it. Then is a perfect time to sit through it, but it doesn’t warrant anymore viewing effort than happenstance allows.