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How can I help you steal our stolen art?

Movie

The Monuments Men
(2014)

 

How do you end up making a movie with a cast and premise this good so goddamn boring? I had hopes for The Monuments Men, based on both those good solid reasons; it was in my films to see for both 2013 and this year, even though I should have heeded the warning signs when the release date was delayed. After all, it couldn’t be anything but at very least entertaining. Could it? Unfortunately, this is George Clooney the director in complete disarray, clueless over to how to string a plot together (with co-writer and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov) and inept at introducing any kind of pace, urgency or drama into his filmmaking. He’s not even that endearing in his familiar anchoring star turn.

He and Heslov previously teamed on Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March, both buoyed somewhat by having a politically invested Clooney (even if his points are relatively soft and familiar ones). Heslov also directed Gorgeous George in the oft chastised but actually quite enjoyable The Men Who Stare at Goats (the ending stinks, and the attempts to string Jon Ronson’s episodic journalistic tome/TV series into a coherent narrative are patchy at best, but there’s enough offbeat goodness in there to satisfy). You can quite see why they snapped up the rights to The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and The Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M Edsel but even the title of his true tale of the quest to find art treasures looted by the Nazis is more exciting than their “dramatisation”.

Perhaps there was no story to muster? The hunt of the title was merely a misnomer, and the Yanks just fell upon the art as fortuitously as they do in the movie. In which case, Clooney and Heslov should probably have dispensed with any pretence towards fidelity and made something up with the loosest of connections to the historical subject matter. At least the result might have been involving. You’ve got a load of bumbling old duffers inept at any attempts to engage in warfare? Watch some old episodes of Dad’s Army for inspiration, Grant and George; the box set is pretty cheap these days. Stuck for how to make a quest for treasure colourful? How about Kelly’s Heroes or (George’s own) Three Kings?

It seems not. Clooney and Heslov are caught in the trap of earnest respectfulness, when what this needed may have been outright irreverence. At every turn (or exceedingly slow sideways movement) they sink into a mire of lumpenly saluting these brave men but forget to make them in any way brave or charismatic. How could you not want to spend time in the company of John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Bill Murray? Bill Murray! Usually Murray’s dryness invites the viewer in on the joke. Here it’s a sign of how disenchanted he is with the whole enterprise. Or maybe, as he has said, he had a ruddy good time. It just doesn’t translate to the viewer.

I don’t think the serious-funny push-pull (depending on how you believe, the delayed release reflects the tonal struggle or incomplete special effects) is nearly as problematic as how inert The Monuments Men is structurally. At no point is any momentum built up. Every single (traditionally successful) plot device falls flat on its face; rounding up the usual suspects, sending the unprepared recruits into a war zone, splitting them up for their individual missions, then the race (read, sedate stroll) against time to get hold of the goodies before the damn Russkies. It could be a charmless affair but still tell an intriguing story, but there’s nothing to fire the mind.

The philosophical points are beaten out with all the subtlety of a claw hammer on the cranium, so much so that, come the final scene, we even get the President directly asking Lieutenant Clooney the very dilemma George has been repeatedly mulling throughout (is art worth a man’s life?) This, without naming names, comes up because a couple of top chaps are dispensed by the terrible Boche. The incidents themselves lack any impact, but we’re asked to mourn these men and believe that the remaining group are terribly affected by their loss. Just so we’re sure of this, the truly rotten score by Alexandre Desplat tries to stir the emotions. For the rest of the time Desplat follows the most hackneyed, militaristic drumroll.

Surely if you’re going to make a movie about the importance of art you need to instil an appreciation of the same? There has to be awe, and wonder, and beauty. You never once believe that any of these guys give a shit about paintings. Murray only wakes up when he finds an immense cache of gold (any hope that his scene at the dentist will find him reliving his cameo in Little Shop of Horrors quickly evaporates, and Stripes is a lifetime away). As does Clooney the director momentarily, which tells you a lot about where the guy who thinks the Elgin Marbles should be returned to the Pantheon (sic) has his priorities. Even Cate Blanchett, in an utterly thankless supporting role as a frumpy secretary with a yen for Matt Damon’s man sandwich, seems more preoccupied with loathing her occupiers (she’s French, but Clooney must not have been interested in employing a genuine croissant enthusiast) than expressing her love of the old masters. Clooney and Heslov set as the great prize Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child but this pursuit is as lifeless as the sculpture itself. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is sometimes quite pretty, but that’s about as artistic as this movie gets.

The attempts to make Damon the butt of jokes (he’s really crap at French) make you long for the days of Ocean’s 11 and, while it’s nice to see Bob Balaban in a high-profile role, his pairing with Murray never really sparks. It’s still more amenable than Goodman and Dujardin, between whom there is zero chemistry. Hugh Bonneville is a complete bore, but he’s in Downton Abbey so that puts him on any anglophile’s casting list. Apart from him and Jean, the Allies = the Americans. Which is obviously the case, as anyone who’s seen U-571 and Saving Private Ryan knows. The Germans and Russians are all faceless goons (Dimitri Leonidas’ “good German” aside). A scene where a Nazi officer is discovered posing as a civilian, “fakes” adorning the walls of his house, briefly threatens to become dramatic but quickly resumes the picture’s otherwise listless form.

Somehow, The Monuments Men hasn’t completely tanked. It may be waiting to take up residence alongside Leatherheads as a prize-exhibit stillborn Clooney picture, but it won’t stop studios giving him the greenbacks to make more. It says something about the lack of achievement here that you’re left idly contemplating how, if the Nazis had destroyed all that art, at least we wouldn’t have had to sit through this movie.

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