The official reason given for the postponed release of George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, the World War II period piece The Monuments Men, from Christmas of last year (which would have made it eligible for Oscar contention) was that the director, actor, writer, and producer wasn’t thrilled with how his visual effects were turning out. The rumour mill posited that Clooney was actually having more trouble trying to nail down the tone of a film that isn’t quite a thriller, a war movie, a character piece, or a historical epic. While the final results now being released in what’s traditionally seen as the dumping grounds of early February are certainly a passably enjoyable two hours, it seems like the rumour mill happened to have this one pegged from the start. It’s a true story that feels almost too loose and aimless for its own good.
Clooney stars as Frank Stokes, a university art professor and former military lieutenant who asks American president Roosevelt to let him put together a team of academics to help liberate thousands of pieces of stolen art stolen by German soldiers for Hitler’s private use. With all the young academics all tied up in the proper context of the war, Frank enlists the help of some considerably more mature academics (in some cases with limited military backgrounds) to hunt down and return the pieces to their proper owners instead of keeping them for themselves. The mission quickly turns deadlier and more dangerous than they had anticipated, and their stresses are compounded by Hitler ordering his soldiers to destroy all of the art if the Reich should fall and by an increasingly greedy Russian military who have been keeping everything they find as reparations for the twenty million lives that were lost in the war.
Clooney has certainly assembled an all star cast of recognizable recruits to back him up, but once the group has formed, they just as quickly split up into their own personal side quests. Frank stays behind to monitor the situation. Frank’s second in command James (Matt Damon) heads off to Paris to meet with Claire (Cate Blanchett), an unhelpful former museum curator turned untrusting spy for the French resistance. Recovering alcoholic Donald (Hugh Jeffries) heads off to Bruges to protect a Michelangelo statue he has loved since he was a kid. Laid back American Walter (John Goodman) teams up with French soldier Jean Claude (Jean Dujardin) in the city, while uptight and aggravatingly low ranked Preston (Bob Balaban) goes around the countryside with laid back architect Richard (Bill Murray).
It’s definitely too episodic for its own good, bouncing around between storylines without any clear connection between any of the events for the first hour, and almost all of these events will end up having little bearing on the final outcome. They’re definitely well acted, assuredly shot, and beautifully scored episodes (thanks to Alexandre Desplat’s exceptional music). Some of the sequences are even bordering on excellence, like a beautifully mournful montage set to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and a bit where James accidentally steps on a land mine, but overall they never add up to very much as a whole. Murray, Balaban, and Dujardin are certainly finding their moments when they can get them because most often they are playing for laughs, but no one else can really rise above the uneven material no matter how good they are (except Blanchett who really isn’t very good at all, with an unconvincing accent and such an unpleasant demeanor that it’s almost not worth the trouble of even having the character help the heroes at all).
Clooney is a fine classicist director, as evidenced by his great work in Good Night and Good Luck and his competency in the otherwise dull comedy Leatherheads, but the gaping hole at the heart of Clooney and Grant Heslov’s screenplay is character development. There isn’t any beyond single words that might as well be grunts or the writers throwing up their hands. All we know is what some of them do for a living, some of them have families we will never see, one is an alcoholic, one is French, and that’s literally all we know about these people. There isn’t a single other defining characteristic about them, and after a while with a complete lack of action or even any real storyline to keep viewers invested, it doesn’t necessarily get boring, but it certainly gets ponderous. It’s not that I had a bad time watching the film, but aside from the film moving at a decent enough pace and the cause being one that’s somewhat just and noble, I was still wondering why I should care about anything that was happening. Even in the film’s second half that finds the unit reunited, there still isn’t much to be offered except a race to a conclusion that’s so convenient that historical accuracy kind of gets thrown out the window. It’s never a film about well rounded characters on a mission and how the mission really affects them beyond just the bare minimum, and more like a movie about some people doing some stuff.
Overall, Clooney’s latest project is a bit of an odd duck, and sadly the early February release date now makes perfect sense. It’s the kind of film that’s hard to really get angry at, but I can see how some will become incredibly frustrated by watching a film full of this much potential that fails to deliver anything. Had this actually come out during awards season (which Clooney, to his credit, maintains was never his intention) it would have been utterly eviscerated by hair trigger critics that would have seen it as a potential waste of their already taxed time. Coming out in February, however, it’s just another forgettable movie that’s just a hair better than the rest. It’s surprising what a one month delay can really do for a film’s perception.