The Monuments Men – Clooney and co. on the hunt for missing artwork…shame they weren’t looking for a decent script too

Actor. Writer. Director. Producer. Prankster. Is there anything that Hollywood’s golden guy George Clooney can’t do? In recent years his work in the director’s chair has been the more interesting side to him though, due to his bold choices of subject matter in several taut thrillers that feature spies, lies and corruption (let’s just forget the dreadful Leatherheads (2008) shall we?). Two of his films, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005), are based on real life tales as well and returning to that vein, Clooney’s latest written and directorial film is also about a true story. The Monuments Men (2014) revolves around a group of curators and art historians who were put together during World War II to find and protect artworks that had been stolen by the Nazis or were in danger of being destroyed. Here that ageing group consists of Clooney’s leader, Matt Damon’s younger Lieutenant and Brit Hugh Bonneville, with the rest of the gang being made up of John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Jean Dujardin. Someone in France has similar ideas to these ‘Monuments Men’ too – Cate Blanchett’s French curator who is also trying to retrieve stolen artworks and rebel against the Nazi regime. A film based on exciting, real events, with a stellar cast and George Clooney in the driving seat; surely that’s a recipe for success…right?

The Monuments Men (2014): George Clooney assembles his team

It seems apt that above I have forgotten the names of all the characters in this film. Apt and also something that should serve as a warning. And indeed The Monuments Men, while fun to watch at the time, really is an overall shambles – a forgettable mess that is completely throw away. There is little to no characterisation for anyone, barely any backstory (hence why I’ve forgot most of their names). With the exception of one poignant scene with Bill Murray we feel no connection to any of them and we don’t really care if they succeed or fail in their mission. The script, written by Clooney himself and Grant Heslov, could have painted a rich tapestry of these characters and their individual stories, explaining why they would risk everything to rescue works of art and how they got to be where they are now. Yet with the exception of a scene with Hugh Bonneville’s character (although even this feels tacked on) we really do learn nothing of the other characters and what they are thinking or feeling throughout, resulting in a ridiculously patchy story that is hard to connect with on any level.

This lack of characterisation isn’t helped by the fact that some of them feel pushed to the background when they should have more time onscreen. This isn’t to say that all the actors involved in The Monuments Men give bad performances and don’t leave an impression, but Clooney and Heslov don’t afford enough time to certain characters when they really should. Who cares about Matt Damon and his ridiculous French? I want to know more about Cate Blanchett’s character and how she is fighting her own battles to save artwork in occupied France. Yet instead Clooney and Heslov leave this more fascinating storyline to focus on other unimportant aspects such as a sort-of romance subplot involving Blanchett and Damon (that is actually more cringeworthy than sentimental).

Cate Blanchett’s French curator helps Matt Damon find missing works of art...

Ok, so you can argue that this story isn’t about Blanchett’s character, but about ‘The Monuments Men’ themselves. But even they sometimes feel like background characters in their own story. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are great and make a perfect comical pair, but we don’t really see much of them, or indeed learn anything about them (except for that one short scene with Murray that I previously mentioned). Pushed even further out and with a written depth as shallow as a puddle are John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, who are the least characterised in the film and who we only really see together in two scenes, a massive shame as again both are excellent (and it’s funny to see them reunited after working together on The Artist (2011) ). By switching focus to these more interesting characters and actors, this could have potentially been something really special, in particular considering the presence of comic genius Bill Murray, and even John Goodman and Jean Dujardin (seriously check out OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) – Dujardin is hilarious). Yet Clooney and Heslov choose to push these more appealing characters to the background, resulting in a boring, disengaging plot and a waste of an excellent cast.

The major problem with The Monuments Men though?: it just can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it a comedy? A farce? Or a serious historical drama? One minute it’s meant to be making us laugh (although the laughs are seriously lacking throughout, with the one good joke about Matt Damon and an unexploded mine spoilt by the trailer), the next it’s trying to make us cry. But the balance between the two is never comfortable, making for a terribly uneasy watch and many moments in which you’re not really sure how to react. Even the end of the film doesn’t know what it wants to do. Rather than gradually build up to a satisfying finale, it feels like it’s leading to something big then suddenly…stops. This leaves for a very bitter conclusion and a general feeling of “Well, what was the point in all that?”.

George Clooney tries to convince Matt Damon to join his ‘Monuments Men’

Big cast. Big heist. And the presence of George Clooney and Matt Damon. The Ocean’s Eleven (2001) comparisons are inevitable. Unfortunately for Clooney though The Monuments Men suffers badly for being seen up against that far superior film. Clooney assembles a dream cast for his ‘Monuments Men’…but then forgets to bring along a decent script with any sort of actual characterisation. This makes for a very dull story and characters we really don’t give two figs about. It can’t be denied that the film is fun while it lasts, but it also feels like it’s having an identity crisis throughout about whether it should be a serious straight story or a laugh-out-loud farce. If George Clooney had leant in the direction of one genre it might have worked. But he sits on the fence and drops in ideas from all angles, none of which really stick and sadly meaning he doesn’t do this true story of the love of art and the courage of a few any justice at all. Let’s just file this under one big misfire. Can’t win ’em all George.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on April 4, 2014.

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