I hesitated to write about this film, but have recently noticed that it is at the top of the rental charts. If a number of people are going to see it, a review seems necessary.
The Monuments Men is a rather poorly made film based on what seemed a surefire story idea—the work of a motley crew of men commissioned by President Roosevelt during World War Two to search for art masterpieces stolen by the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners. The story itself is the strongest and most enjoyable aspect of the film, and if that’s enough for a viewer, then the film should get by on those merits.
Unhappily, that strong story element is almost undone by the film itself. The ragtag group of men—a staple of every other Western, espionage and search film—is comprised of some of the most famous actors currently working: George Clooney (working as co-screenwriter and director as well), Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin (recent Oscar-winner for The Artist), Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett. And believe it or not, that’s one of the biggest problems, or rather, the direction of these fine actors is one of the biggest problems.
Most of them seem to be in their own, separate film. Clooney is back to his shaken-head acting style of the ‘90s, with nary a hint of the skill he demonstrated in Syriana or The Descendants. It’s the most half-hearted, limp performance we’ve seen from him in years; he’s phoning it in. Damon is ever the hardworking professional, but his story arc pulls him into a side story, and he has little chance to raise the film with his interaction with the other men. Bonneville gives the stiff-upper-lip try that the disciplined British are known for, but has little connection with the others. Murray is pretty much always in his own film.
Blanchett is part of that same story line as Damon, and seems in yet another film entirely. She plays an introverted Parisian curator who is forced against her will to work with the Nazis in their nefarious schemes. She, unlike the men (except for Damon) plays her role nearly as deeply and darkly as Streep in August: Osage County, without the drama and profanity. Blanchett, still obviously a beautiful woman (see Blue Jasmine for the most recent proof), is at the center of a “take off her glasses and OMG she’s beautiful!” moment that fails to capture her beauty and only captures the character’s desperate loneliness. In another film, it would be a quietly touching moment. It’s fine work, and is lost and out of place in the film.
That’s not her fault. The film can’t make up its mind whether it’s The Guns of Navarone or Ocean’s Fourteen. The tone varies wildly from 1940’s deadly serious to modern deadly serious to a jaunty all-star adventure where the actors are clearly have more fun than the audience. The shifts from real to silly are jarring and wrenching, and keep us guessing what the film is trying to be. Is it Stalag 17 or Hogan’s Heroes? Perhaps it’s trying for both, but that doesn’t work. When the work by a tertiary character such as Dimitri Leonidas’ Sam Epstein is a breath of fresh air just by being normal, straightforward and believable, you know the film can’t make up its mind.
The script is the other part of the problem. Its exposition is so embarrassingly for the audience that it’s uncomfortable, with Clooney ‘splaining things to the president that no one would in their right mind would condescend to tell the ruler of the free world at that time, complete with maps of Europe that help instruct FDR [that is, us] where France and Germany are. The script decides that we need two specific works of art to represent the cache of the missing pieces, and follows them awkwardly through to their eventual discovery. It’s dramatically satisfying to see if they can retrieve those specific pieces, but we lose the scope of the triumph in the process.
The truly sorry thing about The Monuments Men isn’t the jumble of a cinematic experience that it is. That’s painful enough. It’s that now the great film that could have been made on this subject will likely never be created.