George Clooney returns to the director’s chair with The Monuments Men, a film that is less a stirring love letter to the Greatest Generation and a bygone era in film, and more a checklist, hastily written with a crayon. Based on the true story about a group of aging art history professors and architects that were tasked with tracking down and preserving artwork in the European theater, The Monuments Men eschews the human connection and importance of this artwork and instead focuses more on schmaltz.
This is especially frustrating because the cast is talent-laden. Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, and John Goodman have little to do, comfortably settling into their roles without adding much depth. Goodman slips into haggard patriarch mode, Dujardin has nothing to do, Blanchett’s character is the most complicated, but least explored, and Murray, Clooney and Damon are present at best.
As a story, The Monuments Men meanders without ever really settling into a rhythm. The cast is wisely broken off into pairs for a portion of the film, which takes on an almost vignette style, as it follows each subplot. But within each of these subplots the characters are secondary to the locations and the need to reunite them at the end for the conclusion.
Focusing on the locations would make sense if the film concerned itself with the history or culture of any of the places it visits, but that doesn’t happen either. The idea of families extracted from their homes, or a culture eroded never really gets the time it deserves in this film. Instead, it becomes more of a chase/hunt for two specific pieces the Monuments Men become obsessed with for personal reasons.
In a recent Reddit AMA, Clooney said he made The Monuments Men because after his recent work as a director, he wanted to make a film film that was positive. But with The Monuments Men he overshoots the mark, going the saccharine-sweet route, rather than telling an earnest story about about a group of soldiers preserving culture and humanity in a place where neither were valued. It’s possible to be positive without being schmaltzy and ham-fisted, but The Monuments Men seems to forget that. We get a score that telegraphs every emotion, a script that only goes skin deep with any of its characters and a plot that never manages to build up any steam.
The end result is sugary movie that doesn’t do enough with its story or cast. Unfortunately, this speaks more to Clooney’s weaknesses as a director and cowriter than it does anyone else involved.