"Let's hope nobody kills Hitler. Never thought I'd say that"
When it was first announced for a Christmas release, George Clooney's fifth directorial effort The Monuments Men seemed poised to be a major contender during awards season. Clooney's past awards pedigree combined with an all-star cast in a World War II movie seemed like a can't miss proposition, until news came down late in the summer that the film wouldn't be ready in time for a Christmas release. Clooney needed more time to finish the film, so time is what he got, and the film was pushed to the winter doldrums of February where prestige pictures go to die. So could the film rise above this pre-release negative publicity and still deliver on its solid premise, or was this a wannabe rightly relegated to the graveyard of mid-winter releases? Read on to find out...
The Monuments Men doesn't waste any time with its setup, quickly establishing the "based on a true story" scenario where the Nazis began pillaging museums and private art collections throughout Europe, hoarding the art for some unknown purposes. Frank Stokes (Clooney) implores President Roosevelt to commission a group of young art historians to go into occupied parts of Europe and protect the art that had not been stolen, and also retrieve whatever had already been rounded up. The only problem is that there were no young men available as they were mostly already a part of the war effort. Stokes decides to round up a group of men at or around his own advancing age to pull off this seemingly impossible feat.
Museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon) is the first recruit, and before long they've got an architect (Bill Murray), sculptor (John Goodman) and several other willing parties (Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin) to head up this project dubbed The Monuments Men. After a brief basic training sequence, they arrive in Normandy a month after the Allied invasion and split up in an attempt to hit areas which have already been ransacked by the Nazis, including a solo mission for Granger to Paris where he will meet with a woman (Cate Blanchett) who worked as a curator for a huge private collection stolen by a Third Reich commander. But when word comes down of Hitler's Nero decree, that if he dies or if Germany surrenders then all the art is to be destroyed, time becomes of the essence to protect these irreplaceable works of art.
As a director, Clooney started out auspiciously and daringly, playing with form in his 2002 debut film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but his subsequent directorial efforts have all had an old-fashioned, straightforward, Old Hollywood feel to them. So too does The Monuments Men, turning what seemed like it could be a snarky adventure yarn in the mold of Kelly's Heroes, into a rah-rah-sist-boom-ba good old fashioned war picture. This is by no means a criticism on my part, but it certainly accounts for the general apathy with which the critical community has greeted the film. The film is far from perfect and suffers from an extreme lack of focus, and macguffin chasing, but at the end of the day, it's a solid film that is almost wholly entertaining. Had it been delivered on time, it would likely have been passed over for awards consideration due to its tremendous lack of edge and originality, but in early February, it feels like a much better film than it probably is.
There are a lot of things to admire about the film, namely its ensemble who all deliver admirably on exactly what you would expect from such old hands at this sort of thing. There are also a handful of crack set pieces that deliver the goods, in particular a sniper attack on Goodman and Dujardin that has an unexpected outcome and a side mission by Murray and Balaban to a farmhouse that play like gangbusters. Other sequences fall curiously flat like an earlier standoff involving Murray and Balaban, a borderline absurd and maudlin montage cut to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and virtually the whole of Blanchett and Damon's subplot. If anything, the film is a bit too old fashioned for its own good.
The performances, as I mentioned earlier, are solid across the board. Clooney is at his best when going one on one with his various co-stars, and less so when he's prone to monologuing about the importance of their mission. Murray and Balaban are a hoot, playing incredibly well off of one another, and making their tete-a-tetes the most enjoyable aspect of the film. The biggest surprise of the film was the performance by Dimitri Leonidas as a young American solider raised in Germany who joins the group as their translator. That he's able to hold his own amongst such world class company speaks well to his abilities and he lands a handful of key moments quite nicely.
While the film's main theme is catchy, aping Elmer Bernstein's iconic theme from The Great Escape, the rest of Alexandre Desplat's score is a maudlin mess. After his nearly film-destroying work on Philomena, as well as his heavy handed scores for schmaltzy dreck like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, he's fast usurping Hans Zimmer as the go-to guy for overwrought and leading scores, which is a shame because his work with Wes Anderson has been solid, as was his work on the final two Harry Potter films. Let's hope this pattern ends here, because it's a huge part of the reason I'm suspecting that most critics dislike the film. The only other major problem I had with the film was its absolute joke of an ending. I understand what Clooney was going for, but it lands with a thud, making it a major misfire in a film that certainly didn't need to end on one.
Overall The Monuments Men is a well-made, entertaining diversion for two hours that plays almost too much like a lesson in art and history for its own good. It could have stood to lose some fat and more editing in the script writing would have helped it to play better, but as it stands, it's not a bad movie. Anyone raised on the war films of the late 50s and 60s as I was will likely find a lot here to enjoy, and as the screening I attended was jam packed with the over-50 set, it's definitely playing to the right audience. It certainly doesn't break any new ground, and with World War II pictures slowly becoming the westerns of today, it's not surprising that the film hedges its bets and plays it safe and predictable. It could have been better, but it sure could have been a whole hell of a lot worse.
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]