George Clooney’s Charm Turns to Smarm in ‘The Monuments Men’
High ideas, low art
How high a price are we willing to pay for art? Is it worth dying for?
Is a movie with two hours of forced, inspirational speeches from George Clooney about these questions worth seeing? In general, no.
But those are the central themes of The Monuments Men, a movie about the efforts of a small group of professors, architects and curators tasked with preserving classic works of art during the last days of World War II.
Clooney, the director and the film’s star, deserves the blame for this mediocre mess. It’s not an awful movie, but it’s not good either. It just sits there. It’s the kind of film that has you checking the time over and over, counting the minutes until the two hours run out.
During the first half of the movie I was struck by how rushed it all felt. How unfocused.
The character moments are strung together so fast and loose that scenes meant to impact emotionally feel like they have no context. I thought I was watching a YouTube video someone had edited together of all the best moments from a premium cable drama.
Why do we care that Lt. Frank Stokes (George Clooney) finds a dying soldier we never see? Maj. Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) seeks redemption from a vaguely drinking-related shame that’s barely mentioned. How did Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon) manage to convince the Allies that an uncooperative art scholar (Cate Blanchett) was not a Nazi collaborator? We never find out.
Time moves in great leaps. One moment, the monument men are separated, then they’re together. Clooney makes heartfelt speeches. Bill Murray and John Goodman mug about and look bored.
If you go, ask yourself why the sniper scene is even in the movie, other than to lend cheap dramatic tension.
Look for a dull copy of the opening scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in which Bill Murray tries his best to stay awake while Bob Balaban does his best to look tough. Ask yourself if Matt Damon’s stiff morality seems as unbelievable as Cate Blanchett’s reversal of attitude.
The Train—an old black and white feature starring Burt Lancaster—is a more thrilling and effective version of this story. Released in 1964, that movie tells the story of a train full of art stolen by the Nazis and the efforts of the French resistance to recover it.
The Train is focused where The Monuments Men is scattered. The Train asks complicated questions about the cost of human lives weighed against the treasures of the past and gives no easy answers. In The Monuments Men, Clooney’s Stoker asks the same questions, but spoon-feeds you the answers after posing the query.
The Monuments Men attempts to gel in the back half, but it’s too late. Which is a shame. The story of the monuments men is a fascinating bit of history. People came together to protect the very history of civilization itself—in the depths of one of the world’s most brutal and horrifying conflicts.
It’s a story that needs to be told.
But it’s sad these extraordinary men who fought so hard to protect high art find their story reduced to a mediocre February movie dump.