“The Monuments Men,” or George Clooney’s very own “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”

Monuments Men

The Monuments Men (George Clooney, 2014)

The Monuments Men, the story of 7 middle-aged academics who enlist in the Allied-Forces military during World War II in order to save works of art pilfered by the Nazis, is George Clooney’s fifth feature film as Director. If you want to see the best of what he can do behind the camera, watch either Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or Good Night, and Good Luck (deservedly nominated for 6 Oscars). Don’t bother with this new effort. With its cast of well-known actors, caper-based plot and occasionally jaunty tone, it may bear a faint resemblance to the enjoyable Ocean’s Eleven franchise in which Clooney starred, but unlike those films, it fails to entertain or even tell a particularly compelling story. It’s more like a 7-Eleven convenience store: too many small, generic and ultimately unsatisfying items, but nothing of real substance. You leave feeling … vacant. Sure, there are a few giggles along the way, but that’s just not good enough.

Which is too bad, because the premise is not without promise. The Nazis, as they retreat from the Allies, take the most valuable collections of the Continent with them, hiding the work (for future retrieval) as they go. Will the great museums and private collections of Western Europe ever recover? Will some culture be forever lost? Granted, these stakes pale, somewhat, in contrast to the very real genocidal atrocities being committed simultaneously in concentration camps, but those other stories have already been told, and well (Schindler’s List and The Counterfeiters are among the many great films on the subject). If you’re going to make yet another film about World War II, why not find another angle? Sounds good to me!

The problem is that the film lacks any real structure (i.e., script). We never really get to know these guys and are asked to take at face value their investment (and expertise) in art. We are also asked to listen to George Clooney, as Frank Stokes (the group’s leader), tell us, over and over – in voiceover narration and speeches to his men – of the importance of these paintings and sculptures, while never being granted the opportunity to experience their glory and power for ourselves. This is a film that forgets that basic rule of storytelling (especially vital to the cinema): show, don’t tell.

The moment that best epitomizes this gaping central weakness of the film comes towards the end, as the Russians are approaching a town where our “Monuments Men” are desperately gathering valuable art from a recovered Nazi trove. The Allies have agreed to cede this territory to the Red Army, but our heroes won’t leave until they’ve packed all that they can take. We cut back and forth between Clooney and company and the Soviet jeeps and then . . . a dissolve. That’s right. And that’s it. Nothing more. They get away, and the Russians arrive too late. Ha, ha! What editing! What sense! What a mess!

Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Jean Dujardin all co-star, and they’re all quite good (better than Clooney), with the exception of Blanchett’s terrible “French” accent. Given what happens (*spoiler alert*) to Dujardin’s character, however, it’s hard not to wonder if this entire exercise wasn’t just an elaborate plot by Clooney to exact revenge on the Frenchman for stealing the Best Actor Oscar (for The Artist) away from him (for The Descendants), two years ago. We’ll never know, bien sûr, but it would explain a lot. And speaking of Murray, I couldn’t help but think of his turn as FDR in the mediocre Hyde Park on Hudson in 2012 as I sat listening to the poor actor hired by Clooney to do a miserable imitation of our 32nd President. Bad as Hyde Park was, it was a notch above this. Go spend your money in a museum and support real art this weekend. Don’t bother with The Monuments Men.

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