Clooney Misses Mark With Awkward "Monuments Men"

George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” will go down in history, but probably not as its creator intended. As the picture features a murderers’ row of talent acting out an unheralded chapter of American history, it should remain a curiosity for many decades to come. And it’ll be visited by generations of film fans to come – a victory in itself – but it’ll likely be met with the same sustained, deafening cries of “huh?” that have clouded its theatrical release. It’s not rare for a supposed prestige pic to fumble this badly, but that doesn’t make the experience any easier to swallow.

Based on the book by Robert Edsel, the story – penned by Clooney and his usual partner in crime, Grant Heslov – is simple but innately fascinating. It’s the latter stages of World War II and group of art historians, led by Frank Stokes (Clooney), have been tasked with rescuing a mass of important artworks from the clutches of the Nazis. Making up Stokes’ team are fellow scholars James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), among others.

I wish I could better describe Stokes’ compatriots, but Clooney and Heslov are content to introduce them as blank slates, irreparably damaging the screenplay out of the gate. As a result, the first hour is a dearth of narrative connective tissue, ambling along episodically as if deliberately trying to buck the audience from its saddle. We know very little about these men, making the disjointed narrative structure – whether intentional or not – the worst possible fit for the material.

A few early sequences come together wonderfully – most notably a failed attempt to recover Michelangelo’s “Madonna And Child” – but the haphazard assembly of scenes around such a high point greatly mutes its impact. Characters are all too often disconnected from one another, physically and emotionally, belying the notion that they’re in this together. These frequent comings and goings having little effect on the narrative as a whole, particularly Cate Blanchett’s charming but undercooked storyline as an introverted German art curator and resistance fighter.

Clooney’s direction is magnificent, especially when the narrative comes into focus in the pic’s second hour. The production is big, bold, and sleek when it needs to be, with a few brief but essential action beats cutting through the general lack of intrigue. But Clooney the writer can’t make heads or tails of his source material, making for some maddening tonal confusion. The adorably sweeping John Williams-esque score suggests a film far fleeter than what’s onscreen, while an endearing but immaterial buddy subplot between Murray and Balaban sparks without ever igniting.

The third act is a breath of fresh air in its straightforwardness, but a sudden and silly late game change-up in antagonists is completely unearned. Credit to Clooney for trying to maintain historical accuracy – it’s not easy telling a story in which the climax comes post-war – but why circumvent said commitment to accuracy in the most hackneyed way possible?

“The Monuments Men” plays like an outtake reel interspersed with scenes of real dramatic weight, making for one of the most uneven cinematic rides in recent memory. The strength of the cast ends up being a disadvantage, underscoring the unfulfilled potential of the project. Pairing a knockout cast with a compelling and largely untold true story shouldn’t wield something so unwieldy, but Clooney and Heslov have managed to do it. It’s a film that won’t be forgotten, but probably should be – albeit one with the occasional worthy glimpse of what could have been.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: February 7, 2014
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: George Clooney
Screenwriter: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some images of war violence and historical smoking)