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.