It’s hard to get a good read on George Clooney as a filmmaker. His five films, including his latest, The Monuments Men, have vacillated between drama and comedy and have touched on everything from television history to football to politics to war. If he has a filmmaking lane, he has yet to stay in it.
Maybe that’s why The Monuments Men feels so scattershot. Based on a true story, it follows an international group of art historians and scholars who dedicated themselves to saving millions of pieces of art from being stolen or destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.
If George Clooney has a filmmaking lane, he has yet to stay in it.
That group includes five Americans (played by Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Bob Balaban), one Brit (Hugh Bonneville) and one Frenchman (Jean Dujardin). Although the various militaries approve of the task force, they’re given little official help along the way, forcing them to make their way across Europe on will and wits.
The film’s first issue is tone. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov seem like they’re trying to make both a lighthearted caper film — à la Ocean’s Eleven — and one that acknowledges the seriousness of war. Although comedy and drama can work together, one needs to take precedence over the other. Here, it’s more of a 50/50 affair, so the audience can never truly invest in either one.
Because much of the film has a light tone, the stakes never seem all that high. Instead, the seven seem to breeze through their travels with barely a hiccup. Their quest took nearly two years, but Clooney hardly bothers with relaying this passage of time.
Also problematic is the forced separation of many of the characters for large chunks of the two-hour running time. Although it’s a result of the story, it’s a waste to bring together a group of A-list actors who never get the opportunity to play off each other.
If the film does have a saving grace, it is that group of actors. They, along with Cate Blanchett as a Frenchwoman who helps the group’s cause, are a pleasure to watch throughout. The story as it is depicted may not live up to their talent, but it’s not for a lack of effort on their part.
The Monuments Men was originally scheduled to come out in time for Oscars consideration, but it’s clear that it was never that kind of movie. Instead, it’s an unfocused work that feels like it should be way more important than it actually is.