A film review by Craig J. Koban February 14, 2014 

THE MONUMENTS MEN jj

2014, R, 118 mins.

 

George Clooney as Frank Stokes  /  Matt Damon as James Granger  /  Bill Murray as Richard Campbell  /  Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone  /  John Goodman as Walter Garfield  /  Jean Dujardin as Jean Claude Clermont  /  Hugh Bonneville as Donald Jeffries  /  Bob Balaban as Preston Savitz  /  Dimitri Leonidas as Sam Epstein

Directed by George Clooney  /  Written by Clooney and Grant Heslov  /  Based on the book by 

Robert M. Edsel

There’s nothing sadder to see than a very noble minded and ambitious film like THE MONUMENTS MEN desperately grasping for greatness, only to trip itself up and get taken down by its own ill conceived and shapeless scripting. 

Originally set to be released in December of 2013 – during which time the makers were hoping for a last ditch Oscar nominations push – this new George Clooney directed and co-written reality-based World War II film was reportedly held back due to a longer than expected post-production and issues with balancing the story’s humor and somber subject matter.  The results unfortunately speak for themselves, as THE MONUMENTS MEN is a work that feels like first draft material and, even worse, it comes off as it’s padding in a mini-series worth of material into one two-hour film.  

Clooney has assembled, to be fair, a squadron of elite actors that are powerful enough in tandem to make even haphazardly constructed material watchable.  That, and there is certainly something to be said regarding the film’s atypical approach to a WWII film: it’s not so much about soldiers on the front line, but rather about mostly forgotten fringe fingers on the outside of combat that fought a passionate war of a decidedly different cause.  In short, Clooney’s script (adapted with his long-time writing partner Grant Henslov from the Robert M. Edsel book THE MONUMENTS MEN: ALLIED HEROES, NAZI THIEVES AND THE GREATEST TREASURE HUNT IN HISTORY) focuses on an allied squad that consisted on art historians and museum curators and directors that were assigned the mission of entertaining Germany during the closing stages of WWII to rescue priceless works of art that Hitler and the Nazis plundered during their rule.  Their mission was made all the more significant by the fact that Hitler ordered all of the five million pieces of stolen art destroyed if he died or the war was lost.   

 

 

The men in question – seven of them, all art lovers in one form or another – were commanded by Frank Stokes (Clooney), a middle-aged art expert that had the unenviable task of convincing the president that the task of rescuing the stolen artwork from Hitler’s clutches was a worthwhile endeavor.  His ragtag group (“The Monuments Men”) consists of Americans Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) as well as a Brit Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and a French Jew, Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Durjardin).  The group is further joined by the much younger James Granger (Matt Damon) and Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas) and they all work in tandem to achieve their ultimate end game: rescue as much of the stolen art as possible before the war ends and it’s lost forever.  Complicating matters considerably is the steadfast willingness of the Nazis to protect what they think is theirs and, oddly enough, the Russians, who have their own motives for wanting to stake a claim for the art as a form of payment for the damage inflicted upon them during the war.  The proverbial clock, alas, is always ticking in the background. 

THE MONUMENTS MEN, to Clooney’s credit, is a rather handsome looking period production.  With Alexandre Desplat’s rousing (but perhaps a bit too on-the-nose) music score and the lush and sprawling cinematography of Phedon Papamichael, THE MONUMENTS MEN certainly has the look and feel of an old-fashioned war adventure epic.  Also, as stated, the whole thematic undercurrent of the film in the manner that it presents its protagonists and their collective cause is fascinating.  These are old, out of shape, and definitely not combat ready men that in no way would ever be up to the task of participating in any real combat scenario.  Yet, these scholars prove their bravery and devotion to their mission in how unwavering they all are in succeeding…even if it means taking a bullet or getting killed.  Stokes’ men are of a different breed that we have not seen populate a WWII film before, which allows for THE MONUMENTS MEN to maintain a rather refreshing angle throughout.   

Still, the film is besieged with problems, mostly at the scripting level.  There are simply too many subplots, too many characters, and, frankly, too much going on here to make for a cohesive and tightly rendered narrative.  Beyond that, Clooney and Henslov’s screenplay seems to arbitrarily segue from one vignette to the next, leaving the forward momentum of the film feeling both rushed and frustratingly random.  There are indeed many cursory stories within the main story that command our interest, but with each one of those there are at least two or three more that are only sketchily developed.  Like, for instance, a hastily rendered subplot involving Damon’s character and Cate Blanchett's, who plays a Belgian secretary that works for a German that’s conspiring towards most of the more damning art thefts.  Even though Blanchett crafts a cagey and evocative performance – amidst the staunchly all-male ensemble – that’s memorable, her character is nevertheless underwritten. 

The rest of the characters in the film feel equally marginalized despite being played by many legendary performers that do what they can with the material given.  There were a small handful of individual character moments that I admired, especially Murray’s melancholic architect that wells up in the shower when he overhears a family recording of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  There’s another sequence featuring Campbell (this time with Savitz) as they accidentally stumble across a Nazi soldier outside of a farm that’s kind of quietly potent and played with minimal dialogue.  Perhaps the film’s biggest dramatic punch to the gut occurs when the men make a discovery of a Nazi barrel filled with tiny pieces of gold, only suddenly realizing, to their horror, what the gold is actually derived from.   

Moments like these make THE MONUMENTS MEN truly absorbing, but they are lamentably few and far between.  Then there is the film’s lack of tonal cohesiveness, which jarringly bounces between a cheerfully nostalgic vibe of wide-eyed adventure from the films of yesteryear with the more solemn feel of contemporary war films, which Clooney never really finds a satisfying manner of comprising.  Hell, even the dialogue has a stilted and woefully conventional feel, which is kind of surprising considering how shrewd and savvy Clooney and Henslov’s scripts were for past films like GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK and THE IDES OF MARCH.  When characters are not engaging in off-puttingly archaic sounding dialogue, they are engaging in platitudes that sound like they're sermonizing the film’s message with a bit of a browbeating obviousness.  “Who will make sure that the statue of David is still standing and the Mona Lisa is still smiling,” asks Stokes at one point.  Yikes. 

Clooney has the chops of a soulful and endlessly adept filmmaker, and his past directorial resume proves this in spades.  Yet, it’s with so much crushing disappointment that he never makes the relatively significant material in THE MONUMENTS MEN have the weight and impact it certainly deserves.  For all of the endless pleasure that I derived from seeing this cast on screen together in a war film (it’s a dream team compilation if there ever was one), they are all playing characters that are underdeveloped and whose story arcs never connect together to create a truly meaningful whole.  The more time I spent with MONUMENTS MEN the more I began to ponder the limitless possibilities of this film playing out as a far better and longer HBO mini-series.  Watching the film I felt like I was getting a bullet point lecture of the history presented in the story with little embellishment or rich exploration.  MONUMENTS MEN deserves to be better than it is. 

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