I’m still reeling a bit from The Lego Movie. I’ll calm down soon, I promise. Time marches on and movies just keep coming out. Like, all the time, and if we want to stay afloat as film review site in the incredibly cutthroat industry of film review sites (someone from the competition shot a gun at me just last week), we’re going to have to keep it current. So, moving on to what else is in theaters:
The Monuments Men (2014)
The Plot: During World War Two, the damn Nazis, among other things, were huge jerks about art. As a failed artist himself, Hitler was bent on collecting Europe’s greatest artistic treasures, all the while maintaining that if he couldn’t have it, no one could. So, with treasures from Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Picasso, etc. in danger of either being destroyed or falling into the hands of the damn Nazis, George Clooney assembles a team of middle-aged artists, including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Jean Dujardin, with the objective of stopping the damn Nazis and their evil plans… or, at least the ones involving art, occasionally teaming up with Cate Blanchett.
Now, I didn’t just use actor names in place of character names because I was too lazy to look up the names on IMDb, though partly for that reason, but mainly because there aren’t really any characters in this movie. Everyone has a deep, emotional backstory. We know this, because everyone keeps talking about their own deep, emotional backstories, but no one actually tells them. Hugh Bonneville, for example, has been disgraced somehow, and needs a second chance, a shot at redemption. For what? I don’t know. Even George Clooney, the main character of the movie, serves no purpose beyond delivering cookie-cutter inspirational speeches in a sultry, smooth George Clooney voice.
This movie has such a good cast of talented actors, all of whom can do great comedy and great drama, as evidenced by diverse filmographies all around, but none of them get to do either, because the movie doesn’t know what it wants to be. Comedy? Adventure? War Drama? Tragedy? The Monuments Men is all of the above, and in so being, is none of the above. It flip-flops throughout. Every now and then, this can work for a movie, but it usually spells catastrophe. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men fell into the latter category. I think it wanted to be a lighthearted adventure film, but it leaps upon every opportunity to remind the viewer that there’s a war going on. Now, going through completely bombed out villages is effective, and the Holocaust is relevant to a certain degree, since much of the art was confiscated from Jewish collectors… by the damn Nazis, but Clooney (who also directed), often just takes this a bit too far. It’s staggering how much art was taken, but Clooney ends up inserting scenes about the Holocaust that just don’t fit; they don’t further the plot or character development, and injure the movie. He’ll go right from funny scene to Holocaust speech to funny scene, and all three lose their gravity in the process.
The same can be said of some of the deaths in the movie. It’s based on a true story, so the people who actually died need to die in the movie, too, but they’re sloppily done. The outcome is that a lot of the scenes are really good on their own. They’re nicely scripted, well performed, and even competently directed, but once you take all of these individual scenes and pile them together you get a disordered mess that doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be.
Part of this is a fault in the direction, and part in the script, which I think needed to undergo a few more drafts. I recently re-watched O Brother, Where Art Thou? and I remembered what a great actor Clooney is. I think people tend to undersell his acting ability in exchange for his good looks and incredible voice, but he’s good at his job, okay? His job is acting, though, and not writing or directing. It’s a real shame, too, because this movie had such great potential. It’s an excellent premise, an engaging, untold story set against one of Hollywood’s most exploited backdrops. The movie ends up serving as a reminder that an all-star cast and awesome budget are not enough to craft a piece of art. Clooney clearly cares about the story, but not enough to recognize that he’s not the best man for the job. He desperately wants the audience to care as much as he does, but his method of achieving this is to tell the audience to care. The message of the film is that even alongside everything else that happened during the war, what these men accomplished is important and should be remembered, but the strategy is to tell and not to show, which isn’t ideal for a visual medium.
I had high expectations for The Monuments Men. They weren’t staggering, but I thought they were reasonable. It’s a fascinating story, and this small band of unprepared, inexperienced, out-of-shape and past-their-prime men accomplished amazing things against overwhelming odds from the damn Nazis. They all deserved to be immortalized in a better movie, but one of the real tragedies here is that George Clooney, whose heart was totally in the right place and whose only goal was to honor the men who so impressed him, is responsible for the failure.