George Clooney has charted a fascinating course as a filmmaker. He has taken a special interest in producing projects that are politically relevant to the modern day; the five features he has directed have leaned on true stories from the latter half of the 20th century that are still socially relevant.
The Monuments Men, then, fits firmly into his ouevre, but it’s also his most disappointing effort to date. Inspired by the real-life story of civilians drafted into service during World War II with the express purpose of rescuing art treasures from the Nazis, the film’s intentions never come into focus. Is it a jaunty wartime adventure? A historical drama? A character-based tribute to middle-aged men who get to play soldier? A meditation on the meaning and importance of art in the lives of ordinary citizens?
At one point or other during its running time, The Monuments Men tries to be all those things, yet it succeeds at none of them. After a bright, all-too-brief setup, the story begins to wander from character to character and from one narrative approach to another. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov, adapting a book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, follow seven men chosen for the task, but insufficient time is spent to establish them as individual personalities. And then they are quickly spread out across Europe in order to carry out their mission.
So, we’re left with teams — Bill Murray and Bob Balaban provide what little comic relief exists; John Goodman and Jean Dujardin distinguished more by their body types than any other characteristics — and Matt Damon is sent to Paris for months, with no apparent purpose other than to convince the reluctant German “accused collaborator” Cate Blanchett to cooperate. Meanwhile, Clooney plays the leader, which allows him to sigh and stare balefully, sometimes in the company of the Brit Hugh Bonneville and the German-speaking Jew Dimitri Leonidas.
Episode follows episode, sometimes dramatic, sometimes comic, sometimes life-endangering, sometimes not. Built on a foundation of shifting sands, the film loses its footing early and never recovers. It’s pleasant enough, I suppose, to pass the time idly, but I couldn’t help wishing that the filmmakers had paid more attention to their storytelling and characters than to the computer-rendered backgrounds recreating the damage that World War II inflicted upon Europe.
The film opens wide across Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, February 7.