George Clooney is an undervalued filmmaker. With Confessions of a Dangerous Mind Clooney showed he was the real deal behind the camera. He followed that, his best film, with the widely acclaimed Goodnight and Good Luck, as well as the overlooked Leatherheads, and one of 2011’s best films, The Ides of March. His films have no shortage of ambition or passion, but his newest movie, The Monuments Men, suffers from perhaps too much of both.
Hitler started stealing art during World War II in the hopes of creating a cultural town made up of all these stolen pieces. He was robbing people of their history and culture, and in retaliation FDR commissioned a team to go retrieve the art and find their rightful owners. George Stout (Clooney) led the group and convinced FDR to support the mission and his team of non-traditional soldiers.
For the most part, this ensemble features the kind of limited character definition we expect from The Expendables, not Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov. Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonnenville) is the only fully-defined character in the bunch. There’s a segment of the film where he goes off on a mission by himself resulting in a dramatic conflict that could make for its own film, and it’s a far more engaging possibility than the one we get.
Jeffries becomes the heart of the film. His will drives the team, but the problem is: these men hardly feel like a team. They crack a few jokes together, but with the exception of John Goodman and Jean Dujardin striking up a nice rapport, they rarely come across as a team that completely cares about one another or really knows one another.
Not until the third acts do they join together in a balanced and entertaining way, and the same goes for the movie’s sporadic tone. Clooney has proven himself capable of converging varying tones in the past, but The Monuments Men is a movie at odds with itself. There’s the light banter and whimsical music, but too often it’s followed by a very dramatic moment resulting in tonal whiplash.
One of those more serious subplots involves Cate Blanchett as Rose Valland, a character who knows where a good deal of the stolen art is located. It’s James Rorimer’s (Matt Damon) job to convince her to hand over that information, but she fears the Americans will keep the art for themselves. It’s a compelling conflict: either hope the Americans will return the art or let the art burn with Hitler. The way in which this dilemma is resolved is unfortunate. Rorimer is a fully-drawn character reduced to a laughable — and arguably misogynistic — one. The implications in one of her final scenes is that she makes her decision based on the good looks of a man she doesn’t know particularly well.
It’s doubtful that’s Clooney and Heslov’s intention, but the way the scene is played, in terms of comedy and performance, makes that accidental implication. Worst of all, Rorimer is a character who struggles with a major decision and serious loss, but the script decides to end in an oddly comedic way. The tone undermines its own characters.
This is the type of creative decision that goes on to make an enjoyable viewing experience fall apart when the film is given more thought. The third act becomes a very focused movie — and likely the one Clooney was aiming for — but until those last 30 minutes The Monuments Men is surprisingly stiff and awkward, even with a stellar cast and a promising concept.
What makes that concept intriguing is the idea of risking life and limb to save “things.” Is it worth it? The problem is, Clooney makes it extremely clear that the answer is a bolded and underlined “Yes, yes it is.” That’s how the characters feel, but it’s hard to shake the sense Clooney firmly agrees. That’s perfectly acceptable and noble, except Clooney ends the movie on a note that leaves little room to argue otherwise. From a more cynical perspective, it’s an artist back patting the importance of art. Nothing wrong with that, except, in this case, when it gets in the way of a movie with potential by exclaiming its answer to a thought-provoking question. That doesn’t make for great drama.
There’s no doubting Clooney is a talented director. He takes chances as a filmmaker, but in the case of The Monuments Men, those tonal risks fall flat. Sadly, this is a movie with all the right ingredients that have trouble coming together.
The Upside: Clooney has one great scene; a few jokes land; nicely shot by Clooney and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael
The Downside: Tonally frustrating; structurally uneven; and an ensemble of characters we hardly ever get to know
On The Side: The Monuments Men is an adaptation of Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter‘s book of the same name.