Movie Review: The Monuments Men
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
In the middle of “The Monuments Men” — George Clooney’s ode to the scholars who hunted for European art looted by the Nazis at the end of World War II — one gets the distinct impression that the actor/director grew this really cool 1940s mustache and then decided to build a movie around it.
Clooney, who seems to have embraced that awkward point in a leading man’s career where “George Clooney” significantly outweighs anything else about whomever he plays, is Frank Stokes, an art conservator who punches his words an awful lot like any number of Clooney-people. (As comic book writer Dan Slott noted on Twitter, “The conviction at which Clooney says ‘The Nazis have stolen the greatest achievements known to man! is ‘Batman & Robin’ worthy.”)
To that end, Stokes (based loosely on real-life George Stout) and the Army assemble the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, an Allied group charged with recovering all of the art Germany has taken from the various countries it has sacked. Clooney puts his fellow art samurai together almost “Ocean’s 11”-style.
There’s James Granger (Matt Damon, based loosely on former Metropolitan Museum of Art Cloisters curator director James Rorimer) restoring a ceiling! There’s architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) on top of a building! There’s British historian Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) drinking, since he’s English! And so forth. (In real life, this group was more than 300 strong.)
Directed by Clooney, written and produced by Clooney and Grant Heslov (with whom Clooney worked on the similarly throw-backish “Good Night and Good Luck”), the movie is based on Dallas resident Robert M. Edsel’s “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” In theory, it is an incredibly inspiring story, a tale of men safely out of harm’s way who nonetheless risked their lives for culture because art is worth it.
Onscreen, it is an extremely boring movie, emotionally flat and drama-free, oddly breezy in spots, overbaked elsewhere, with Alexandre Desplat’s retro score slathered over the action. It is never funny enough to flash the sort of cool wit that Clooney excelled at in, well, “Ocean’s 11.” Nor is it a gritty, you-are-there drama a la “Saving Private Ryan.”
It feels in spots like an ode to a sort of rah-rah movie of the time in which it is set, which sells the era a bit short. (After all, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” one of the most potent consequences-of-war movies ever made, came out in 1946.)
The closest fit might be 1962 cheese factory “The Longest Day,” a classic ’60s flag-waver with an all-star cast of guys in their 40s and 50s. Murray, John Goodman, and Bob Balaban, normally hardcore professionals, seem uncharacteristically unsure of their characters, all of whom seem to have indistinguishable motivations. Murray, whose best comedy thrives on his acid manner, holds back in service of an old-fashioned vibe. Only Balaban as Preston Savitz, an academic whose Judaism is implied but never explicit, has a bit of fire to him.
Cate Blanchett, better than the material, per usual, shows up as ultimately extremely important French art historian Claire Simone. It sounds like nitpicking, but poor Claire ends up the butt of a totally tossed-off joke that would go unnoticed in a movie actually from the Truman years but sticks out like a sore thumb here — you’ll know it when you see it. One wonders if Clooney even noticed how retrograde it came off. He may have been too busy cultivating that amazing mustache.