A typical complaint about The Oscars is that, often, they place greater value in competence than innovation. In the past, this tendency has seen Fargo defeated by The English Patient and The King’s Speech triumph over The Social Network. Well, if anything, The Monuments Men is a reminder that competence is actually a virtue worth commending after all. Clooney’s film amounts to little more than a 118 minute demonstration of just how badly wrong such awards-pandering prestige pictures can go.
Clooney stars as Frank Stokes, a conservator tasked with putting together a ragtag group of ageing art experts played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and Bob Balaban. Their mission is to enter occupied territory during the latter stages of the conflict in order to retrieve priceless artworks pilfered by the Nazis. Cate Blanchett is also thrown in to the mix as a Parisian secretary whose only function is to service a superfluous romantic subplot. It’s as though Clooney expected that if he assembled a glittering enough cast, a film would magically take shape around them, but one never does.
So, how did these men actually go about carrying out this mission? Who knows. Something to do with maps with big arrows drawn on them probably. The film never really shows us. Instead, Clooney chooses to skim over plot detail in favour of padding out the running time with seemingly endless scenes of the group’s jovial antics and chummy repartee. This approach might be easier to stomach if the comedy weren’t so groan-inducingly inane. One running gag involves Damon’s character being chastised because he’s bad at speaking French. In another scene, we see Balaban struggling to shoot a gun properly, on account of his being old. Side-splitting stuff for sure.
The Monuments Men is a film suffering from a bit of an identity crisis: it comes on like a Paco Rabanne-drenched small town lothario who’s taken night classes in Art History. It attempts to charm the audience into submission: almost every scene is punctuated by a cheeky nudge and wink. Superficial charm does count for something though. American Hustle proved as much. The key difference is that David O. Russell wasn’t hell-bent on teaching his audience a lesson.
For such a lightweight film, The Monuments Men is obnoxiously pious. Clooney seems to think that if a film is to have a serious point it must be explained repeatedly by its central protagonist. The film actually opens and closes with Clooney stood behind a lectern, pointing at slides whilst waxing lyrical about his noble intentions. With each tonal shift, you can almost hear the grinding of gears. In one scene, Clooney delivers an inspirational speech about why art is worthy of sacrifice as a piano tinkles in the background. These sentimental moments are entirely unearned and hard to take seriously when bookended by yet more scenes of the troops’ innocuous banter. Similarly, scenes where the men’s lives are in jeopardy are drained of all tension because we learn virtually nothing about them as people. Throughout the film, the characters are reduced to vessels for Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov’s god-awful jokes.
The film isn’t completely without merit. A few scenes, taken in isolation, usually involving Murray and Balaban, are perfectly decent. The problem is that the film which glues them together is incoherent and boring. The Monuments Men asks us (over and over again) whether art is worth the cost of human lives. Sadly, in the case of The Monuments Men, it is barely worth the cost of two hours of anyone’s life.