'The Monuments Men' Review: Forced Perspective
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'The Monuments Men' Review: Forced Perspective

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | February 7, 2014 | Comments ()


What, exactly, does George Clooney want to say?

Since 2002, Clooney’s made five films as a director, and on three of those — Good Night, and Good Luck; The Ides of March; and now The Monuments Men — he’s also served as co-writer with his producing partner, Grant Heslov. (He also did a ground-up rewrite on Leatherheads, originally penned by Duncan Brantley and Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, but the WGA declined to credit Clooney’s writing work, inspiring him to downsize his membership in the union.) Narratively, he keeps coming back to the broad tension between human truth and political perception, and how media can skew cultural priorities and remake the world in its own image when the right hand is on the throttle. In practice, though, his films have seemed to run before him, barely in his control, and the execution doesn’t always match the conception. The stark power of Good Night, and Good Luck stands apart thanks to its tight focus and the strength of its cast, while The Ides of March is a little more strident, a little more predictable, a little less possessed of life. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind bursts with the energy and experimentation that are common to debut features, even if the final product often feel flimsier than, well, a Chuck Barris story. When you step back a little, though, you can see something else in bits and pieces of each film, especially in the later ones. It’s the same thing that Clooney often brings to the film in which he’s merely starring, and not shaping the narrative from behind the camera: a sense of amused entitlement, and a tone that assumes the project will be presented with confidence and met with a respect worthy of its endeavors. This is a movie about serious people and ideas, so it has to be embraced, right?

It’s that unchecked sense of being welcomed that starts to get to the heart of the problems with The Monuments Men. The film is shot through with bizarre tonal conflicts, veering wildly from cheekiness to slapstick to maudlin war scenes to outright preaching on the benefits of fine art, and everything’s stapled together with a bouncy score from Alexandre Desplat that almost seems to parody those from war movies from the mid-20th century as it hammers home each desperately uplifting moment. At times, Clooney seems determined to make a World War II version of an Ocean’s movie, while at others, he’s trying to ape A Midnight Clear or random speeches from Saving Private Ryan. He seems to expect it to work, to hang together by virtue of its content and cast, and that assumption means a lot of other things get missed. The film’s release was actually delayed so that the tone could be massaged in editing — Clooney said that finding the right balance was “a bit of a dance” — but it’s uncomfortably clear that that balance never materialized. The film is jokey but never funny, quiet but never somber, set in a war but somehow inconsequential.

Drawn from Robert Edsel’s 2009 book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the film mechanically details the work of a team of art scholars and historians and architects who, toward the end of World War II, traveled through Europe in an attempt to track down and return the artwork that Hitler had amassed in his time in power. These men are played by Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Jean Dujardin, and the characters are such plastic amalgamations of each man’s general screen and public personae that there’s not much point here in worrying about specific character names. Clooney’s character is rakish and vulnerable and noble; he and Damon have a playful banter; John Goodman makes wry observations; Bill Murray can deadpan. Jean Dujardin is French. You get the idea. These are all wonderful, highly likeable actors, but they’re so casually dropped into their roles that you can’t even pretend to care about them as anything other than caricatures. It’s a lark, like watching them put on a skit for the USO.

To persuade FDR of their mission’s importance, and to occasionally remind the audience, Clooney speaks in vague, sweeping paragraphs about the power of art and the importance of mankind’s achievements. These things aren’t untrue, either, but there’s something forced and empty about the way they’re said. They feel perfunctory, as if Clooney can’t quite convince himself of what he’s saying, hoping that the existence of the treasure hunt is enough to retroactively sell its urgency. And for all their grace and power, the art itself is rarely seen and feels somehow distant from these men’s real concerns. They go looking for art and eventually find some. One special statue is turned into a symbolic prize when one of the men dies looking for it, and Clooney uses the piece as a carrot for the characters to lazily chase for the back half of the film, but the stakes feel arbitrary and loose.

The subplots feel perfunctory and clunky, too. Cate Blanchett plays a French citizen forced to help local Nazi officials round up and ship out stolen art, and she eventually butts heads with Damon when he comes asking for help and she becomes convinced that he wants to keep the paintings for his home country and not help return them to their rightful owners. (In her mind, apparently, the paintings are better off owned or burned by the Führer than hanging in a New York gallery.) Yet even that cursory resistance on her part that I just explained is never quite laid out or backed up in the film. Rather, she resists helping Damon simply because he needs an obstacle to overcome. Finally, almost randomly, she decides to trust and help him. And that’s that.

Clooney just never finds a rhythm. Scenes start and stop almost haphazardly, with no real momentum or accomplishment, and conversations within scenes often skip across locations and times for no reason. Clooney also splits up his squad and follows them with little vignettes that usually wind up with a kind of wink-wink punch line that feels like it’s setting up a commercial break. At one point, Goodman and Dujardin come under sniper fire in an abandoned village only to discover that the shooter is a young boy. It’s a weird, surreal twist on a life-and-death situation; it ends with a pre-chewed “Let’s keep this to ourselves” bit and the kid carted off to some random prisoner depot. It’s a groaner moment that tests your patience, especially when you remember how good Clooney can be when he’s on his game. But that’s The Monuments Men: a stumbling collection of scenes left undone, uncertain of what they should be.

Which is the real problem underneath all the rest: Clooney might actually know what he wants to say, but he seems afraid to say it. Time and again he’s cast himself (as an actor or filmmaker) as someone out to buck the system and do things his own way, to fight for a cause defined by his own moral code. Good Night, and Good Luck is David loading stones in his sling. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a deranged outsider’s tale that satirizes the clandestine service. The Ides of March is a poison-penned mash note to the political process. But with The Monuments Men, Clooney’s on the side of the winners. He’s playing a character and making a movie about the good guys, the ones who went in and did their job and got home clean, and who did it with the stars and stripes on their sleeves. There are moments when the film bumps against the brisk horror of war — brief conversations that mention Dachau; one of the Monuments Men inspecting a reclaimed Nazi storage facility and finding a barrel full of gold fillings pulled from Jewish teeth — but they’re shouted down by the devil that’s telling Clooney to keep things snappy and fun. All that’s left is the sound of a man trying to tell himself he’s being honest. You can barely hear him.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Wigamer

    I respect Clooney as a person for the attention he's brought to Darfur. I always admire when a celebrity harnesses the ridiculous amount of attention they receive and use it to help others. He also has gorgeous hair and looks like he smells amazing.
    As an actor, though (and I guess as a director from what it sounds like) there seems to be something about his personality that makes him unwilling to play characters with much vulnerability. To me they're always kind of operating above the narrative of the film, always a shade too wryly observant for my taste.

  • apocalipstick

    I saw it this afternoon, and the problem is there's just too much story there for a single film. If any project screamed 10 hrs. on HBO, this was it. The story just has to skip across the tops of events. It's a trifling, vaguely enjoyable two hours that could have been so much more.

  • chumbawumba

    bummer. my dad loved the book. :/

  • logan

    Damn! I just told the wife I wanted this movie to be good.

  • Semilitterate

    Having recently viewed "The Rape of Europa" on Netflix, a wonderful documentary, I was all in when I first saw the ads for this movie. After reading this review, not so much. When is hollywood going to learn that there is an audience out here for serious, intelligent movies on subjects that deserve them? I don't think G Clooney has the intellectual heft to even consider this, never mind deliver it.

  • Stephen Nein

    Here's the thing about Clooney - we know the man is smart, but there's this certain hesitation on his part to use that intellect. He seems to be actually concerned about an image that's smart, but not too smart. As if we're going to love him for handsome and charming, but the trifecta will be his undoing.

    This is exactly the problem with this movie.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Isn't it odd how sometimes you can look at the advertising or hoopla around a movie and just know it isn't any good, or think that the people involved are due for a less successful effort. This review verifies the highly-unscientific expectations I had for the movie.

  • Stephen Nein

    So here's a long-ass . . rebuttal isn't the right word, from me, as an absolute nutjob fan of this book:

    "Narratively, he keeps coming back to the broad tension between human truth and political perception, and how media can skew cultural priorities and remake the world in its own image when the right hand is on the throttle."

    Right from the beginning, if this is how we're framing Clooney's oeuvre, this is *not* the right man for this book. There's very little tension between truth and perception in Monuments Men; the book has great treasure hunts (plural), people desperate to save their skins before the next citizens' committee decides to exact some justice, and the chronic problems of trying to save art treasures in battlefields. But very little truth and perception.

    " . . a sense of amused entitlement, and a tone that assumes the project will be presented with confidence and met with a respect worthy of its endeavors."

    Again - totally wrong person. The Monuments Men commissions literally were an ad hoc group of civilians and barely commissioned officers and enlisted men making shit up as they travelled with the Army across Europe. They literally had to convince every GI and civilian they met that their jobs were real.

    The terrible problem with this film is not that the actors were terribly cast; they were impeccably cast roles (with the exception of Blanchett). Clooney is absolutely perfect for George Stout, and Damon is a very good James Rorimer. Bill Murray would have had another Oscar shot playing against type as Robert Posey with Bob Balaban as Lincoln Kerstein - Posey was a Southern architect who took to regular army life like duck to water and his collaborator Kerstein was a manic depressive artist and gay, but they supposedly had the smoothest working relationship in the MFAA.

    And then the roles and names were re-written in the worst Hollywood tradition, and we kept these same great names playing characters that are them, not the real people. The writers stripped out the heart of this book, Walker Hancock, and the love affair all of these men had with their families back home. I'm not even sure whom John Goodman is supposed to be.

    Switching gears . .
    "In [Simone's] mind, apparently, the paintings are better off owned or burned by the Führer than hanging in a New York gallery.) Yet even that cursory resistance on her part that I just explained is never quite laid out or backed up in the film. Rather, she resists helping Damon simply because he needs an obstacle to overcome. Finally, almost randomly, she decides to trust and help him. And that’s that."

    Rose Valland (the original person) was a deeply complex and enigmatic character. (It didn't help that all the participants died well over 20 years ago) She kept alive and gathered information by saying nothing to no one, and blending in. The director of The Louvre, also a French partisan, believed she knew where the art had gone, but she had refused to tell even him. She simply refused to believe that these Americans could do what MFAA people were claiming they were there to do. I think she believed those work of art were lost anyway, so why bother? I think she also feared the retribution if she was wrong and accused as a Nazi collaborator. Giving that information to the MFAA was a massive and deep expression of hope by Valland.

    How deaf to the story to you have to be to miss that?

  • emilya

    WAIT- when the fuck did they change everyones names? i looked at the imdb page for this in january and everything corresponded with the book. John Goodman is supposed to be walker hancock but, seriously WTF. now i'm pissed

  • emilya

    this is so disappointing, but not wholly unexpected! i've been looking forward to this movie coming out since it was announced and my book group read Edsel's book to prepare for it. It's a great book but it kind of needed most the 800 pages of the book to make the whole story, so it doesn't really surprise me that the Rose subplot would be convoluted. also, if people are interested in antiquities and looting, the rape of europa is also a great text and i believe was made into a documentary.

  • PDamian

    Well, if nothing else, we're all finding out about good stuff to read. Additional works by Robert Edsel, and now The Rape of Europa. Thanks for the recommendations! Pajibans are so erudite (PDamian pats herself on the back for keeping good company online).

  • AvaLehra

    Aw...but I want it to be a good movie. The trailer keeps making me weepy.

  • Stephen Nein

    Well . . . shit.

    I was deeply afraid of this when Rose Valland, a matronly middle-aged curator and a great hero of the French Resistance, became Cate Blanchett, and all those important people became other pseudonyms. When the damn thing got moved to the February graveyard, I knew it was fucked.

    At least we have a great book. If you haven't read The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, I cannot recommend it enough. It is fascinating, and even more importantly, the writer has enough material for at least 2 more volumes - one for the Far East theater, and another solely focused on the art treasures of Italy.

    (edits in bold)

  • emilya

    i know there is no way they'd include it in the movie, but i was really hoping they would have the part where the general in italy is worried that the current warfare caused the 1,000 year old ruins from the tunisian wars (i think?). it was silly and not necessary to the story but gave a great framework for the general level of awareness about historic sites in europe.

  • PDamian

    Two more volumes? Thanks! I didn't know! Off to the library ...

  • Stephen Nein

    Oops, potentially two more volumes. Robert Edsel discloses in the intro of this book that he's got enough for the Italian campaign to stand by itself, and MMFA archives and other resources indicate that the Far East MMFA history is just as big.

  • Edsel's Saving Italy is out. I loved Monuments Men the book quite a lot and gave it an effusive review for CBR5 last year. I had hoped the movie would paint the people as honestly and heartfeltedly as the book does, but I guess it just want meant to be.

  • Finance_Nerd

    Well, that clinches it. The Lego Movie is what me & the missus are seeing this weekend.

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