The cast of The Monuments Men at The Berlin International Film Festival 2014 [x]

2014, George Clooney

Out of the many intended 2013 films which saw their release dates pushed back into 2014, the one with perhaps the highest profile was George Clooney’s The Monuments Men. The alleged reason for the shift was that they needed more time to get the visual effects properly finished, but rumblings were certainly building that maybe this picture wasn’t up to the caliber of the Oscar buzz that it had been generating all year long leading into the award season. Well, the reviews are out and it seems those rumblings were right as this one has come dead on arrival with plenty taking it to task for its weak narrative, self-importance and overall weightlessness. Personally speaking, I’d say that most of the reviews are taking it a bit hard on what is ultimately a light piece of escapism but that’s not to say The Monuments Men has anything worth recommending either. 

Based on a true story, Clooney and Grant Heslov’s script sees a group of unconventional soldiers near the end of World War II who are rounded up by Frank Stokes (Clooney) to retrieve stolen pieces of art from the Nazis and make sure they are preserved. The film constantly hits you over the head with the question of whether or not a great work of art is worth a human life and by the end of it they make sure to answer it for you time and again. This could put off some viewers who feel that it diminishes the heroism of soldiers in this war or the tragedy of their deaths, and the more dramatic moments do tend to clash with the general jovial nature of the picture. If you walk in with the idea that this is going to be a prestige drama of an important story you’ll no doubt come away disappointed and perhaps a little angry, but going in with lower expectations should soften the blow. 

At the end of the day, The Monuments Men is just Clooney gathering up a bunch of his A-list actor friends (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and more) to play dress up and crack jokes in a World War II setting and that can understandably be seen as an offense but I think that interpretation is taking things a bit too far. There are several times where the writing tries to inject a sense of importance to these characters and the mission they were on, complete with Alexandre Desplat’s sentimental score, but all of this falls flat and never captures what they’re trying to achieve. Clooney gives several monologues on the importance of art that feel far too narcissistic, but the biggest moment of second-hand embarrassment comes at the very end which is one of the most cringe-inducing finales I’ve seen in some time. 

Where The Monuments Men does work is when these actors are just having fun with one another, but even then there’s nothing too memorable about any of the proceedings. There are some chuckles here and there, with Jean Dujardin being the funnest of the group and Murray of course getting in some nice dry lines, but it’s ultimately a throwback to a kind of film that has no place in our current culture. None of the cast are particularly bad in their parts, but none of them are stretching either and when Clooney and Heslov say that they wrote the parts with the actors they had in mind for them it basically means that the parts were written as if the actors were just putting on a soldier’s uniform and being themselves. I always roll my eyes when people criticize actors for “playing themselves”, but there really is no removing these characters from the actors who are playing them here. It’s a big game of dress up and it’s not nearly as fun to watch as it must have been to make. 

I will say that Bill Murray has one great scene filled with emotion in the centerpiece of the movie that really feels like something out of a much stronger picture, but unfortunately that’s the only moment that taps into something beyond what’s on display for the rest of the duration. I love Clooney as an actor but as a filmmaker he continues to fall incredibly flat. The exception being his debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which wasn’t written by him and had direction more distinctive of Soderbergh than himself. Sometimes other elements of his directed films can make up for his blandness behind the camera, but that’s not the case here and ultimately this one feels far too insignificant for the kind of story it’s trying to tell. Let’s just say if the world were on fire and a group of people were tasked to save the great films from being destroyed, The Monuments Men wouldn’t be the first on their checklist.