Set during the closing days of World War 2, the latest directorial effort from George Clooney details the titular group who were tasked with preserving great art and architecture from destruction by the Third Reich who had plundered and stolen it as they tore through Europe. Playing out like the Soderbergh remake of Ocean’s 11 meets Saving Private Ryan, The Monuments Men is a potentially great story – one well worth telling – but is thoroughly mishandled in this inconsistent and ultimately disappointing film.
Made with the spirit and flavor of the Warner Brothers 40’s war films (complete with overt propaganda and pretentious sermonizing), the two hour duration feels carved out of a much longer – and frankly – better movie. The pace of the film is so fast that feels like it simply bounces from cliché to cliché of the “men on a mission” subgenre. They’re charged with their mission and then we’re taken on a series of vignettes as the characters bounce around Europe. Perhaps if Clooney had expanded on these scenes and given them real depth beyond their routine beats it would have made for a much more satisfying experience.
The major problem with the film is that it just doesn’t take itself seriously enough, and if the film doesn’t, how can it ask the audience to? It has several sequences which are supposed to be particularly poignant or dramatic – such as a wounded soldier dying or the discovery of a barrel of gold fillings from holocaust victims – but these ring false with everything that goes before and after them. Their mission is indeed a valid one, but Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov don’t entirely commit to it, often feeling the need to over explain its importance which only demeans it. The smugness of the writing – it has the feel of two hours of George Clooney on the talk show circuit – does it no favors. A strong anti-Russian sentiment is particularly juvenile and extremely dated.
For such an ensemble cast, the performers seem oddly under-utilized. Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and the much under-seen Bob Balaban go through the motions and do well with little material while Matt Damon and George Clooney seem content to rest on their screen charisma. Cate Blanchett (reuniting with Damon from The Talented Mr. Ripley for many scenes) does such a great job that she seems to have wandered in from another movie and hasn’t been let in on the joke.
Oddly hollow and mostly disappointing, Clooney who crafted a masterpiece out of the also historical Good Night and Good Luck, has really dropped the ball here, and worse still, it really should have been a home run.
The Monuments Men is in Australian cinemas from 13 March through 20th Century Fox.