When it was first announced that George Clooney’s The Monuments Menhad been moved from its December release to February, that raised an eyebrow for me. A film of this pedigree, with this cast, a period piece, set in WWII- this had “Oscar Bait” written all over it. Why would they, then, move it out of Awards Season and bury it in a month where it will likely be long forgotten by the time this year’s big dogs come out? Clooney and the studio, of course, gave very safe, predictable answers regarding why, but it soon became clear that this film was just not going to be what everyone anticipated. What is it, even?
Is it a period drama? Is it a cool action-comedy with some of that Ocean’s 11 flare? Is it a heist movie, as the misguided tagline on the poster implies (“It Was The Greatest Heist In History”)? No. It’s not really any of those things. Trailers I saw that included actual music from the Ocean’s soundtrack only served to muddy the waters as the studio tried to figure out how to sell whatever this movie was. So I went into the theater with tempered expectations, despite being a huge fan of Clooney’s work as a director, as well as of his onscreen work these last 10-15 years.
So, with all that said, how was the movie? Pretty good.
Right away, I got the sense that Clooney knew this film was a tough sell. The subject matter- about a bunch of guys trying to rescue precious art during World War II- wasn’t necessarily the most Hollywood-ready material. There weren’t going to be any guns-blazing acts of heroism. No epic romances. No instantly-quotable larger than life characters. So Clooney tries, early on, to slap some Hollywood trappings onto things. We meet all of our experts in a rapid fire montage, everyone’s got snappy dialogue, and the score wants you to feel like this is cool- when there’s really not much actually going on and we’re not being told why any of these guys was selected for this particular mission or what their past relationships to each other are.
So the first fifteen minutes- the setup, so to speak- feel a little rushed. Then we kind of enter a 40 minute period where the story wanders around aimlessly. We drop in on pairs of our lead actors as they handle aspects of their mission around France, Germany, and Italy. But there’s no real urgency to the story. The tone uneasily shifts from pure lighthearted comedy, to intense tragic drama, then back again. Indeed, the film doesn’t start to really come together and move forward until nearly an hour in. Up until then, it’s all perfectly pleasant. The actors are great, and the performances are somewhat fun to watch, so it’s not a total chore, but there’s just no real momentum anywhere.
However, the last hour of this picture saves it. Once our intrepid Monuments Men figure out a vital piece of information, and get the cooperation of a key character in the film, then- finally- we’re off and running. If the entire film felt more like the second hour, we’d have a damn good movie on our hands so it’s a pity that the first half felt so directionless.
Overall, I’d say the performances in the film are all quite solid, even if a few of the actors feel vastly underutilized. Bill Murray, in particular, has close to nothing to do here, so while he’s always fun to watch, his role doesn’t amount to much. The one sour note, and this could have more to do with the writing, was Cate Blanchett. Her shrewd Claire Simone spends the first chunk of the movie being cold, guarded, and completely disinterested in anything but saving art. Then, in a turn that just didn’t ring true and feels ham-fisted (“George! You need to add some romance into this thing!“) she pulls an about-face that doesn’t feel real or organic in any way.
I also found the score to be problematic. In another example, perhaps, of Clooney trying to add Hollywood elements to a story that’s very bare bones, the score tries to do too much. It’s loud and full of pomp during scenes that don’t require it, then a little overly obvious during other scenes- like when they want us to feel sad, or to know that this guy must be a villain.
But I cannot emphasize enough how much the strength of that second hour powers The Monuments Men across the finish line. The movie really finds its voice, and the tonal shifts become much smoother. While I was restless and disappointed at first, I was totally drawn in and emotionally invested by the end. Seeing and feeling the historical significance of what these men did, and knowing how their lives really were at stake for such a noble cause really did leave me with a feeling of: This was an important story, and I’m glad to know about it now.
If you’re a fan of Clooney’s, WWII films, history, and fine art, then you’ll have a pleasant time at the cinema with The Monuments Men. Just don’t expect to be blown away. As presented, it’s a small, simple story and probably required smaller, simpler treatment.