A Monumental Failure

I'm not sure what could turn George Clooney into a good movie director, but he could start by curing himself of wanting to be well thought of. In front of a camera, he's all suave effrontery, but plunk him down behind one and his cockiness goes out the window. Since Clooney minus his cockiness is the approximate equivalent of Joe Biden with laryngitis, you find yourself wondering which long-gone high-school teacher he's wanly hoping to impress.

If the overrated Goodnight, And Good Luck and the forgettable, forgotten The Ides of March were Clooney in civics class, The Monuments Men is a dose of World Civ combined with art history combined with nostalgia for the jaunty, "Let's put a ragtag bunch of misfits together and go on a mission" WWII movies of his (and my) youth.  Predictably, the last of these is viewers' best chance of getting some driblets of fun out of watching the thing, thanks to a very juicy cast: Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Babalan, Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville and The Artist MVP Jean Dujardin, along with Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, and Clooney himself. With varying degrees of implausibility, they're all impersonating art historians tasked with preserving Europe's cultural heritage from destruction as Patton's vengeful tanks blow the rest of the continent to smithereens.

Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a humble but determined scholar—yeah, sure, George—who convinces President Franklin D. Roosevelt that we'd better look to our Picassos while the contending armies are vying to outdo Guernica. (In a weird throwback to the pieties of 1940s movies, FDR—and, later, Harry Truman, not to mention Hitler—are photographed as if it's somehow unseemly to show their faces.) Then Stokes starts getting his aesthete band of brothers together, and soon they're all in Europe, landing in the war-torn middle of a serious case of Saving Private Ryan envy. But since Clooney doesn't know how to use scale expressively—not even to highlight the contrast between the massive forces blowing everything up and the puny band of art mavens bent on salvaging what they can—the costly re-creations of wrecked cities, Allied columns on the march, and so on just sit on the screen like refugees from another movie entirely.

The script—by Clooney and his frequent collaborator Grant  Heslov—is uncommonly dithering. You keep waiting for idle bits like the repeated joke about Damon's lousy French to add up to some sort of payoff. Then you catch on that these vague scenes in search of a point are going to be the whole movie. Clooney's sense of tempo is so slack that he can't even generate any urgency as everyone takes off to different destinations to track down the cultural treasures the Nazis have looted. 

As a French art curator who's suspicious of the team's motives, Cate Blanchett is probably the worst- served cast member, because her character's behavior never does make much sense. (Even the German officer she's got the goods on as an art pilferer ends up getting caught by complete coincidence, without any use of her info.) Still, Blanchett  manages to give the movie some welcome astringency, at least until she's undone by an idiot sequence in which she turns would-be seductress out of the blue  to try wooing Damon into bed.

A few of the actors do pull off nice moments: Murray clowning around to get thin-skinned Babalan's goat, for instance, or cranky old Goodman's developing camaraderie with Dujardin (whose megawatt smile, as always—deployable in any context—is one of the wonders of today's movies). But we don't get the Great Escape-style pleasure of seeing the team's members put their various specialties to use—heck, we can't even be positive what their specialties are—and we never believe in the passion for art that's their supposed common bond. Even Clooney's over-compensating big speeches about the importance of capital-C Culture fall, so to speak, on deaf eyes. From the baffled-looking way he photographs the precious artworks everybody's after, it's as if he wants to impress us with how valuable they are without being able to provide a clue why that's so.

Honestly, who on earth thought The Monuments Men was a good idea for a movie? Clooney and Heslov keep tossing in increasingly random ingredients, from Murray listening to his wife croon "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" during the otherwise irrelevant Battle of the Bulge to a race with the Russians for the final treasure trove and a diversionary vignette that has Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley all showing up to marvel at a discovered stash of gold bullion rather than the art that's also been rescued, which is unfair to Ike. His no-uncertain-terms directive was what forced the army to take the real Monuments Men seriously.

It's fairly plain that nobody involved ever did figure out what, if anything, the material added up to that might hold an audience's interest. (No surprise that the Holocaust gets belatedly dragged in as a sort of guest Star of David; the loss of their art collections was hardly the worst of what Europe's Jews faced, but the movie could give you a different impression.) If you ask me, the definitive WWII flick on the "Is art worth dying for?" theme is still 1964's The Train, and not because either director John Frankenheimer or star Burt Lancaster came up with a good answer to that ultimate eye-of-the-beholder question. Realizing that a) they didn't have a clue and b) most moviegoers couldn't care less, they just set out to give audiences a rip-roaring good time. 

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