Review: The Monuments Men

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The Monuments Men posterWhen my friend jokingly asked before our screening of The Monuments Men if this would be like an Ocean's Eleven part 4, she wasn't far off. Actor/director George Clooney assembles a cast of heavy-hitters for this World War II dramedy and only barely taps into their talent. I have a feeling the actors were having a better time chumming around together off the lot than we did watching the resulting movie.

Clooney's film is based on a group of men past conscription age -- art historians, architects and art directors -- who volunteer to go to Europe to save important works of Western art from Nazi capture or destruction. The characters all have names, but with the lack of any real character introduction or development, good luck remembering them. I could only keep the people straight by recognizing the actors involved. 

John Goodman and Bill Murray play architects, Bob Balaban (Moonrise Kingdom) is an art director/possible choreographer, Matt Damon and Clooney play art historians, then there's a Brit in need of redemption (Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey) and a French museum curator (Jean Dujardin, The Artist). The team goes through basic training, then splits up to recover works of art endangered by the Nazis (specifically the Ghent altarpiece and Madonna of Bruges). Cate Blanchett is the only female with a sizable role -- she actually may be the only woman with a speaking role in the film! -- as a French secretary to a Nazi officer. 

The plot is formulaic, and the script is schmaltzy and heavy-handed. The confused tone reminded me of an episode of Futurama ("War Is the H-Word") that pokes fun at M.A.S.H. with a Hawkeye-style robot who can only switch between irreverent and maudlin.

The Monuments Men knows how it wants you to feel, and it will be explicit about it. Alexandre Desplat's score, far from his best work, soars at a moment punctuated by a remember-why-we're-here-Art-is-important voiceover by Clooney's character, and you are meant to feel sad right then. Too bad the film fails at emotional manipulation... except for the Battle of the Bulge scene with Murray's character silently crying in the shower tent as his daughter (via recording) sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Some of us just tend to get choked up when that song plays.

Most disappointing about The Monuments Men is the possibility that this fantastic cast could have made a really great movie together. This just isn't it. Given his excellent work on Good Night and Good Luck, one expects better from Clooney.

Texas connections: Robert Edsel served as a producer on the film (and wrote the book it is based on). You can read more about the Dallas oilman's involvement in this Texas Observer article from December.