What the hell happened to George Clooney, the director? To state it plainly—he stinks. He’s directed 5 films total(one released every three years since 2002), and his start was so strong, that you really thought he could reach Robert Redford’s onetime lofty levels. In other words, the impossibly handsome actor, turned award-winning director. I guess we should include Warren Beatty in that league too. But Clooney has faltered way too soon. 2002’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was lauded by many, and then 2005’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” secured six Oscar nominations—including one for Best Picture, and two for Clooney himself, as director and co-screenwriter. Then he unveiled “Leatherheads” in 2008, and both audiences and critics disapproved of the gridiron period piece. 2011’s political drama, “The Ides of March” fared better, and even secured Clooney his 2nd Best Screenplay Academy Award nomination(also twice with Grant Heslov as co-author), but I found it a tepid, warmed-over “The Candidate”. And now 2014 brings us “The Monuments Men”, directed by George, and co-written by Grant Heslov. It’s their worst collaboration yet. “The Monuments Men” is just plain terrible.
Purposely, and glaringly, shot in the style of an uber patriotic 1940’s war movie, “The Monuments Men” picks up in 1943, roughly halfway through U.S. involvement in WWII. An art-loving military officer(Mr. Clooney)convinces President Roosevelt that it’s imperative to save the great art treasures of Western civilization from the Nazis, and he hires a ragtag group of middle-aged “soldiers” to carry out that mission. A band of seven men set out to find the lost and stolen works, and Clooney’s heavyhanded screenplay, hammers over and over and over again, how “worth it” sacrificing lives for art is. It doesn’t so much as present the argument, as much as assure you that it’s the correct one. And it’s insufferably grating. Two characters are killed relatively early, and we’re given almost nothing to make us care about their respective demises. Cate Blanchett remains on the sidelines as Parisian curator, Claire Simone, and gives us the distaff version of the value of rescuing the masterpieces. But the script boxes itself in very early, and immediately has absolutely nowhere to go.
It’s based on an actual story, that I understand inspired an exceptional book(The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel), but Clooney’s execution of this true series of events is puerile and facile. Plus, he squanders a dream cast. Clooney himself, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Jean Dujardin—all Oscar recipients. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are both former nominees. And, of course, both John Goodman and Hugh Bonneville are absolutely outstanding performers. Usually. Bonneville shines the brightest amongst this group, as the recovering alcoholic Lieutenant Donald Jeffries, but even his role is allowed to drown in sentiment. Murray, as Sgt. Richard Campbell, appears to be acting on auto-pilot, and Matt Damon is held up as the stolid, faithful family man, Lt. James Granger(I don’t think I could turn down advances from Cate Blanchett, even if it wasn’t wartime!). Clooney as Lt. Frank Stokes is in full Cary Grant mode here, and gives himself an embarrassingly manipulative monologue towards the finale(better to turn down the volume when he shames a German officer with a tale of his favorite Jewish deli). Goodman and Blanchett appear to be trying not to look silly, and they both partially succeed.
That’s an uphill battle though with this screenplay. And are those visual nods to Murray in “Stripes”? Can the “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” scene be any more cloying? Did Clooney really intend to give handsome, 2012 Best Actor winner(for “The Artist”)Dujardin that little to do? Oh yeah, and there’s that little problem of selling the whole spiel about “saving” valuable art from the Nazis while the concentration camps were full and millions of Jews died. Clooney’s script has to convince that the whole venture was “worth it”. It doesn’t, and it plays like half-baked “Saving Private Ryan”(with a cast that actually contains Private Ryan!). There may have been a writer/director out there somewhere that could’ve made this plot line sing. George Clooney was not that person. “The Monuments Men” is forced and plastic and insulting. It’s the worst film I’ve seen all year.