(George Clooney, 2014)
I have to give The Monuments Men credit for making me desperate to rewatch The Train, John Frankenheimer's superb 1964 WWII action film which is similarly concerned with efforts to halt the Nazi attempt to steal all of the great art of Europe during the Second World War. I will also concede that the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is occasionally lovely.
....and thats about it. Given this brilliant cast, what looks to have been an immense budget and intriguing subject matter, somehow George Clooney has managed to concoct a movie which is almost entirely underwhelming.
The disjointed, curiously inert story follows Clooney and his team of "monuments men", a collection of art experts, most of them too old for conscription, after they arrive in Europe to help retrieve the art of Europe stolen by the Nazis in the last year of the War. Alongside Clooney himself there are Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin. A fine cast, bolstered by Cate Blanchett as a Parisian Museum curator and resistance sympathiser. And yet none of them really registers much. Nothing registers much.
The drama mainly comes from various vignettes as the team - who split up into pairs for much of the second act, searching for lost art and leads in different corners of Western Europe - encounter a series of familiarly classic War situations, including snipers, levelled cities and firefights in the countryside, before reassembling to investigate the mines in which the Germans have hidden the art.
This drama is not very thrilling or memorable. It happens, and it's hard to care much about any of it. Damon has an extended storyline trying to persuade Blanchett to help him in PAris which goes on far too long without much of any human interest occurring. Major characters die, and despite Clooney's awful efforts at underlining and emphasising these tragedies and Alexandre Desplat's overblown, syrupy score; it is never moving in any way.
Likewise, none of the comedy works. Even Bill Murray struggles to wring laughs from this script, which seems oddly pleased with itself, even smug.
Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov wrote the script, and he gives himself a few monologues, but as a director he is unable to curb Clooney the actors worst impulses, and so he is all tics and sentimentality in his scenes. The other fine actors here don't really have characters to play. Damon is nice, Goodman is nice and old, Murray and Balaban bicker in an affectionate way, Dujardin is French, Bonneville is a polite, disgraced drunk. You really never learn much more about them than that.
Clooney is obviously trying to work with the kind of bold archetypes beloved of the mission movie - but it is almost as if he is too tasteful and careful a filmmaker to really sell them. And so instead he has a series of vague, empty figures who good actors render watchable but no more.
That may be the problem with Clooney as director - he is scrupulously tasteful, his films polite and intelligent and utterly dull and bloodless. With this type of material a bit more guts, a bit more vigour is necessary. And it's never here.