Talking Movies

February 12, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney’s last directorial outing, The Ides of March, was compelling if histrionic, but his return to the director’s chair is a sadly muddled affair.

the-monuments-men-matt-damon-george-clooneyFrank Stokes (George Clooney) approaches President Roosevelt in 1944 to plead with him not to destroy Europe’s priceless heritage in the act of liberating it. Roosevelt agrees, and so Stokes is tasked with finding some other art historians, sculptors and curators to enlist in a highly specialised unit – The Monuments Men. Stokes rounds up Chicago architect Campbell (Bill Murray), Campbell’s friend Preston (Bob Balaban), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), drunken Brit Donald (Hugh Bonneville), and Met curator James Granger (Matt Damon). A French mechanic and curator Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a New Jersey private from Germany, are added to the roster in Europe. But not only must they work with icy Parisian Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to find priceless works of art, they must outwit determined Russian and German counterparts tasked with, respectively, stealing and burning it…

I wrote that last sentence to imply tension, because there ought to be a lot of it, given both Hitler’s Nero decree, ordering the destruction of everything in the event of his death, and the startling opening credits image of Italians desperately shoring up a bomb-damaged wall which is revealed to have Da Vinci’s Last Supper on it. Instead Clooney and his eternal co-writer Grant Heslov only inject urgency for the finale as frantic deductions lead Stokes’ men to a cache of stolen art just as Zahary Baharov’s Russian art-thief Commander Elya is closing in on it. Frankenheimer’s The Train is the touchstone for this movie, but Clooney introduces two successive Nazi villains Stahl (Justus von Dohnanyi) and Col. Wegner (Holger Handtke), neither of whom equal Paul Scofield’s avaricious Von Waldheim; even though Wegner is given a juicily suspenseful sequence.

There were 400 Monuments Men, not 7, so inventing a strong villain wouldn’t be outré. It’s a symptom of a wider lack of purpose. Blanchett and Damon’s characters are largely redundant, and Andre Desplat, in their clumsy seduction scene and his constant insertion of jaunty comic cues, scores an entirely different film. Clooney’s vignettes range from the amusing (Damon’s appalling ‘fluent’ French) to the shocking (a startling sequence in a wood clearing) and the hackneyed (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ being sung over the Battle of the Bulge), but they never cohere into a story, owing to bewildering tonal inconsistency, and he fails to flesh out just 7 characters compared to the Ocean’s characterised ensemble. The importance of saving art is reduced to an argument winnable by a single word from a cameoing Nick Clooney, but there’s no compensatory joyous ‘greatest art heist’ ever…

This approaches The Internship for uncomfortable parallels. Stokes is too old to fight, so he assembles aged men to embark on a loftier mission than the young grunts, just as Clooney retreats from blockbusters to prestige films. Monuments Men is always watchable but falls badly between crowd-pleasing and cerebral-pleasing.

2.75/5

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