“The Monuments Men” begins with Professor Frank Stokes (George Clooney) imploring the president of the United States to create a task force to protect the precious art of Europe from being stolen and destroyed by both the Nazis and the Allied Forces. “Who is going to make sure the statue of David keeps standing? Who is going to make sure the Mona Lisa keeps smiling?” The answer, as the movie is about to reinforce for the next two hours, is the United States of America.
The film, written and directed by George Clooney, is a war narrative that has not yet decided whether it wants to be a comedy or a war movie. Fielding a full cast of A-list celebrities, ranging from Matt Damon and Bill Murray to John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, “Monuments Men” gives none of them a chance to shine — because of the structural deficiencies of the film, Clooney and co. are relegated to delivering quippy one-liners and offering minimal emotional depth.
The Monuments Men start off with seven men, and the film goes on until they pick up an eighth. Five are American, and three are not. (Spoiler alert: It’s the two non-Americans from the original seven who end up dying over the course of the film.) These men split off into pairs, each of which is to go to a different city and locate various works of stolen art. Meanwhile, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) serves as secretary to Nazi commander Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnanyi), spying on his movements and plans for stolen art.
Because of the writers’ decision to structure the narrative in this way, the movie is forced to jump back and forth between the various pairs, oftenleaving the audience confused as to the location of the city and the piece of art being obsessed over in a given scene. This leaves little to no time for character development, for just as we are getting somewhere with one pair, the movie suddenly cuts to the travails of another. This setup also creates awkward transitions between storylines — the narrative will juxtapose a particularly humorous moment with the death of one of the core eight and then jump back to humor framed by a soaring soundtrack. Clooney was clearly striving for a wry tone to the film, but the attempts at emotional appeals in the midst of jocularity make the deaths and tragedy of war nonimpactful.
The original score, composed by Alexandre Desplat, sounds like a combination of the scores from “Indiana Jones” and “Toy Story 2” — so much so that it belongs in Disneyland. In fact, if the billing had not noted the extensive hand Clooney plays in this production, it could have been assumed that Disney had produced this movie, particularly because of the overt and ridiculous patriotism.
There’s one moment at the end when the Americans save the Madonna of Bruges from an abandoned German salt mine and escape before the Russians get there. A Clooney voice-over sardonically remarks that they left something behind for the Russians to keep. That something, of course, would be a large and proud flag of the United States.
It’s unclear what Clooney’s intentions were here. Was he trying to create a film depicting an oft-forgotten, but important, facet of the American military effort? If so, the synopsis of the film gives us about just as much information as the film itself does. Was he trying to craft a tribute to the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives not for ideology or nationality but for art? Clooney certainly beats the message into our heads that art is integral to modern culture. Without art, the film seems to claim, we would have no basis for society.
Unfortunately, Clooney’s “tribute” is a nostalgic and cheery portrait that is so haphazardly cobbled together that the audience leaves with an unclear sense of the extent of the Monuments Men’s legacy.
Contact Lynn Yu at [email protected].