The big story behind George Clooney’s latest movie, The Monuments Men, is that it was once positioned for a December 2013 release, the perceived ideal calendar date for Oscar Consideration, to later be pushed back to the far less competitive cinematic landscape of February. The assumption was that the push meant The Monuments Men was either not a very good movie, or more of a popcorn entertainment than an awards contender. After all, in recent years, being pushed back from a December release date ended up benefitting Shutter Island and The Great Gatsby, both of which ended up crossing the 100 million dollar mark at the U.S. box office. I don’t know if The Monuments Men will end up becoming a financial hit (the massive success of The LEGO Movie makes me think its chances aren’t that good), but I do know that the assumptions about its quality ended up being right. It is not a very good movie.
The big problem is that The Monuments Men is a structural nightmare. Not that it has an experimental or innovative structure that doesn’t quite work, but something much more embarrassing. It has a deep editing and scriptwriting problem. I know George Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov know how to make good movies (there is proof of that), but the screenplay of The Monuments Men is just a mess. The movie is set in World War II, and tells the story of a special task force created to protect artifacts of cultural value from being stolen and destroyed by the Nazis. That is how a group of rag-tag artists and intellectuals, end up making their way through the European battlefields trying to protect the most valuable pieces of art.
The core team of unlikely heroes is made up of Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean DuJardin and Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville. There is also Cate Blanchett in a supporting role as a French woman reluctantly working for the Nazis. As you can see, this is a pretty fantastic cast. These are all people capable of squeezing the juice out of a scene, and for the most part, they do it. If you were to catch The Monuments Men on cable one day, and you watched a single scene, you would probably see some pretty terrific acting and get curious enough to keep watching the movie. Only then will you realize that while these are all good scenes, the transitions from one to the other don’t work at all.
It’s rare to know exactly what doesn’t work in a movie, but in the case of The Monuments Men, it is absolutely obvious. It is as if all the scenes were meant to be big moments. They work on their own, but when put one next to the other, you realize it’s all payoff without build-up. I have a few theories on why this might have happened. Either Clooney and Heslov thought they had such a charismatic cast that they didn’t really need any time for us to get to know the characters, or there is a lot of movie left in the cutting room floor. As it stands now, The Monuments Men feels more like a highlights reel than a cohesive movie, which is a shame, considering the great talent at hand.
There is one thing that is exceptional about The Monuments Men, though, and that is Alexandre Desplat’s score. The music harkens back to the sounds of classic Hollywood epics and adventures, and actually manages to make a surprisingly effective job of holding the movie together and giving it a smoother flow. It is, of course, not enough to make it a good film, but it features some pretty awesome music, and gets an A for effort.
Grade: 4 out of 10