What a cast George Clooney has brought together for his latest directorial effort. He’s dug up a hell of a true story to base it on too, coming from a book by Robert M Edsel and Brett Witter about the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives subcommission. It is a kick to see Bill Murray, John Goodman and company as old men in uniform gallivanting across the frontlines of Europe. It’s also a pretty amazing tale of cultural sensibility and bravery. However, that’s about where the fun ends. The actors never really shine, with the exception of a touching monologue by Hugh Bonneville, something I think the production as a whole is somewhat responsible for. Clooney likes his understated performances, but they haven’t gelled well with this historical script.
The program responsible for the Monuments Men was conceived during World War II, and saw experts from the arts community volunteer to travel through war-torn Europe with the aim of protecting or recovering important art. By all accounts it was a tremendous success made possible by incredible foresight. Clooney’s version takes a fair few liberties, although the basic points are the same. Part of the problem is that Clooney can’t seem to make up his mind whether this is a buddy comedy, a heist movie, or a war film. It’s not that it can’t be all of those things, more that it doesn’t quite manage to be any of them. It is, however, backed by a wonderful score by the man of the moment Alexandre Desplat – Grammy winner for The Grand Budapest Hotel – who has worked with Clooney before. He has created some charming, period-appropriate music, with a nod to classic World War II television and movie themes. Actually the whole production seems to have been well tailored to the period, with some evocative sets.
By all accounts the actors themselves had a great time making The Monuments Men, getting along famously during shooting. Yet this camaraderie hasn’t translated onto film. The characters just end up following Clooney’s art professor Frank Stokes’ vague ideas around war-torn Europe. That is, with the exception of Matt Damon, who gets to do his own thing alongside a French Cate Blanchett, based on a real woman of the resistance. There is the occasional nice moment of character development, particularly in interactions between young German expat Sam Epstein, fresh faced Englishman Dimitri Leonidas, and Stokes. However the former is infinitely more interesting than the latter in those scenes. There was also a little fun to be had between Bob Balaban and Bill Murray, who have worked together a few times, most recently in some Wes Anderson films.
I really wanted this film to be great. It was looking to be an Ocean’s Eleven (the Clooney one) set in World War II with an even better cast. Alas, this was not the case. It kind of feels like Clooney is resting on the laurels of that success here, just expecting it to all work, yet I honestly doubt that’s the truth. All the same, despite having the cast and a great historical basis, nothing really comes off for The Monuments Men. It does, at least, have its moments – the touching rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas over an army camp PA, Bonneville as Lieutenant Jeffries writing a redeeming letter to his father, John Goodman’s Garfield cradling a dying friend in his arms. Disappointingly, though, these moments are not enough to keep the roughly two hour running time compulsive viewing. And if it’s the history that interests you, you’re probably better off just watching the documentary.