Vafa Motamedi reviews
Another year, another World War Two film. Nearly 70 years on, our society is still transfixed by that period in history, perhaps because it represents the last time in recent memory where the lines between good and evil seemed wholly unambiguous. The latest film to latch onto that wistful nostalgia for innocence past is The Monuments Men, which details the real-life exploits of the titular squadron’s attempts to protect valuable European art from Allied bombardment and to retrieve stolen artistic masterpieces from the Nazis.
George Clooney co-writes, directs and stars, along with an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett. With a cast like that and such an intriguingly offbeat premise, The Monuments Men seemed extremely promising. It is a shame to report that this promise is squandered on an incredibly weak script that has no idea where it is going and even less of an idea of how to get there.
Beginning with an obligatory recruitment and training montage, the film begins in earnest when the men are sent to France where they immediately split up and go on their own individual searches. Because of this, The Monuments Men consists of merely a bunch of loosely connected vignettes and montages. Which would be fine if these segments were interesting or charming in their own right. They are not. Huge swathes of the film are tension free-chasms and all too often feature Clooney warbling on about the importance of art. Thanks George, we get it.
One feels that Clooney has become a slave to history here and rather than crafting an exciting story he’s devoted himself to the replicating the beats of the past, resulting in a narrative that slumps around like a drunk trying to find their way home. Clooney really is filmmaking by numbers. With so many characters and so little time (though it feels like an age) the script can only muster up the flimsiest of characterisations. We never really get to understand who these people are and what drives them to do what they do. The characters are sketched so thinly they barely qualify as caricatures. Worst of all is the usually stellar Cate Blanchet’s dire ‘Allo Allo’ accented Frenchwoman. Her character is totally perfunctory and feels like a cynical attempt to graft a token female onto the film whilst crucially forgetting to give her a character or any real meaningful relation to the plot. A relationship between her and a Monument Man comes from absolutely nowhere and eats up valuable screen time which should have been used developing the characters rather than heaping a poorly realised romance on a couple of poorly realised characters.
The burning question at the heart of the film’s problems is: what does Clooney want his film to be? A Guns of Navarone romp? A Saving Private Ryan meditation on the cost of war? A philosophical film, musing on the value on art? A comedy? The Monuments Men tries to be all of these things and does none of them particularly well. The film is tonally confused, ranging from farce one minute, to tragedy the next with no attempt to try and balance the two, which leaves the film stopping and starting like a stalled car, never really building enough momentum to grip the audience in the way it wants to. This problem is exacerbated by a series of bad editing choices, often intercutting scenes that are meant to be tense with comedic ones thus completely ruining the intentions of both.
The film desperately needs more cohesion and focus, with a stronger idea on what it wants to be. A tighter, more direct story with a clear McGuffin or goal would have helped greatly, giving the film a sense of propulsion so that the protagonists are moving towards something rather than meaninglessly wandering round in circles until that something falls into their lap.
It’s hard to truly hate The Monuments Men. Despite the weak script, the cast is mostly superb, there are several funny moments and the film’s heart seems to be in the right place. The direction, in of itself, is well done and the twee innocent nostalgia is rather endearing. However the weakness of the script only overwhelms what good is present and without that solid foundation, the whole film collapses.
A bit of a formless and uninspiring mess. Clooney’s charisma as an actor is enormous and his eye as a director is promising but his skill as a screenwriter leaves a great deal to be desired.
Four out of Ten