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The Monuments Men

George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Sam Epstein in "The Monuments Men."

The half-dozen aesthetes

The Monuments Men

Adapting the reliable Dirty Dozen concept for an arthouse crowd, a movie like The Monuments Men stands or falls on its casting. With star (and co-writer and director) George Clooney joined by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, The Artist’s Jean Dujardin, and Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, it can hardly go wrong. And if the escapades of this band of art historians and scholars traipsing across Europe in the waning days of World War II trying to save masterworks, first from Allied bombs and later from the clutches of fleeing Nazis, doesn’t measure up to expectations, it’s still an enjoyable time-killer.

The official story is that the movie was supposed to be released in December for the lucrative holiday market and awards consideration, but was pushed back because the special effects needed tinkering. I’m guessing that’s a face-saving excuse: It might have nabbed a few technical nominations at best, and at the box office it would likely have been lost in the crowd along with 47 Ronin and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Given the final result, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that that last-minute tinkering including trimming it down some: What is onscreen plays like something missing a fair amount of exposition and detail.

The film’s drama comes from the tension expressed in two bits of dialogue. Explaining the mission he wants to launch to a presidential commission, art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) argues, “We must remember the high price that will be paid if the very foundation of modern society is destroyed.” But when he gets his team assembled, the first field commander he speaks to in France is less than impressed: “You want to go in a war zone and tell our boys what they can and can’t blow up?”

Clooney has said that he and his writing/producing partner Grant Heslov were aiming this film at a more mainstream audience than they’ve gone for in the past. Those would be the folk on the “blow it up real good” side of the preceding exchange. But the script doesn’t work very hard to convince those viewers of Stokes’s case, that art is the soul of a culture. When asked in a post-mortem whether the successes of his mission were worth the lives of the men who died in it, Stokes simply answers, “Yes, it was.” Some may come away unconvinced.

Adapting Robert M. Edsel’s book of the same clunky title (the subject of a snarky joke in the film), Clooney and Heslov try to keep as much scope as possible but can’t weave the incidents on which they focus into a satisfying dramatic arc. Instead they offer a series of set pieces, many of which could have been pulled out of any World War II movie: Damon discovers he has stepped on a land mine; Murray and Balaban confront a nervous but armed young German soldier; Clooney brings an injured soldier to a surgical unit.

That’s not to say that these incidents aren’t worth your while. There are clever comic touches, like subtitles showing how bad Damon’s French is. (His French hosts groan when he says he learned it in Montreal.) The dry rivalry between partners Murray and Balaban, though unexplained, is fun. A bit with Murray unexpectedly hearing a Christmas message from his daughter while showering is, in its wordless way, one of the best onscreen moments he’s ever provided. (His fans will recognize a nod to Stripes as he struggles over a fence in basic training.) And though he gets the least screen time, Bonneville is touching as a recovering alcoholic who finds in this mission a shot at redemption.

The Monuments Men isn’t what it might have been, or really even what it should have been. But it’s still solidly enjoyable adult entertainment of the kind that Hollywood doesn’t seem to care to make anymore.

Watch the trailer for The Monuments Men

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