In a way, it is remarkable that there haven’t been more features based on the Nazis’ systematic theft of great European art during World War II. However, even more remarkable is that with all the on screen talent and a great premise, George Clooney’s latest feature ends up so underwhelming.
Clooney leads the cast as Frank Stokes, head of a group tasked with preserving the cultural achievements of Nazi-occupied territories in the dying days of World War II. The goal of his team is to return stolen art from whence it came, before it can be destroyed by Nazis or gobbled up by the advancing Soviets.
The premise is a fascinating one, and indeed some of the scenes display a fine artistic eye on the part of Clooney. As his band of scholars and soldiers tumble around ornate cathedrals, gas-lit mines and the twilight of medieval European cities, the beauty and importance of the sites or artistic works is communicated fairly well aesthetically. It’s a shame, therefore, that everywhere else the film is so tongue-tied and bumbling.
THE MONUMENTS MEN, sadly, suffers from an edit that lacks a sense of timing and is further impeded by an extremely uneven script. The film often has an amusing line or quip (given in the initial stages to an accomplished, if becoming typecast, Jean Dujardin), but the aforementioned poor timing has the gags fall flat on screen. The tone of the piece lurches uncomfortably between the harrowing backdrop of the Holocaust and the harrowingly unfunny scenes of Matt Damon’s poor French. Clooney’s film wants to simultaneously be both DAD’S ARMY and SCHINDLER’S LIST.
The tone lurches uncomfortably between the harrowing backdrop of the Holocaust and the harrowingly unfunny scenes of Matt Damon’s poor French.
Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack is overly earnest, relentless in its desire to rouse, even in the film’s most mundane moments. For a film so intent to display the actions of these men as inspiring, it is curiously unsure of their purpose, feeling the need to constantly cut back to the greater backdrop against which this partially true story occurred. Further, these moments are undercut pointlessly by incongruities such as Damon’s Met curator needlessly flirting with Cate Blanchett or Clooney staring down an SS officer for no discernible reason other than to deliver some suavely badass lines.
This isn’t to say that THE MONUMENTS MEN does not entertain in spurts, but it can’t help but come across as a monumental waste of both premise and talent. The film occasionally threatens to break into dramatic life. For instance, a scene in which Bill Murray and Bob Balaban confront a fugitive SS officer in his country home. Here the screen sparkles briefly but all in all, the considerable expertise of such a cast is left mostly unrealised.
THE MONUMENTS MEN feels like an anachronism; full of bolshy Americans, plummy Brits and swarthy southern Europeans. The film can’t convince itself of the import of the characters’ task and is fearful to raise a smile without a somber frown following swiftly on. In trying to deliver a message laced with levity, on the importance of preserving cultural achievement in the face of adversity, it is undone by its own inconsistency and lack of conviction.