Why is art important? There are certainly many who feel that it is not, and others who may admit to ambivalence. Is it important enough to most of us to risk human lives to save? And what, in reality, are we saving? Just ‘pretty things’ or a visual record of the evolution, morals, ideals, and values of mankind. That is the fundamental question at the heart of “Monuments Men,” and while it desperately wants to talk a half-way decent talk, it stumbles and falls miserably. With a talented ensemble cast of Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate, Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban (one of my ALL TIME favorite character actors) and Hugh Bonneville in addition to George Clooney (who also co-wrote and directed it), something went wrong. Balaban is by far the standout in this cast with his ability to play it slow and steady, while the rest of the cast shuffles through the flaccid dialogue and off-kilter tempo which marks basically every scene.
I take no delight in shredding a film. On second thought, let me amend that. I take no delight in shredding a film which could have SO easily, and for the sum of all its parts should be, a good film, but blows it. If this wanted to bill itself as a fluffy amusement on the other hand…well, everyone needs their catharsis! With a cast of highly skilled actors and with what I can only imagine was a generous budget, it is somewhat of a mystery why this film was so disordered, chaotic and frankly, boring. Beginning towards the end of the World War 2, it has become known that the Nazi regime is accumulating masterworks of art, historic and current, to either destroy because they do not reinforce Aryan societal ideals, or to placed in the planned FuhrerMuseum to be built in Hitler’s hometown of Linz, Austria. Believing, as I happen to, that part of the “foundation of modern society” is it’s artwork, Lt. Frank Stokes (Clooney) sets out to get approval to assemble a small team of experts from different disciplines to rescue the stolen art and return the pieces to their rightful owners. All that is, needless to say, an important and noble endeavor, but it is not treated nobly. Instead we find our team endlessly driving around, looking at maps, flirting with the sullen Blanchett and leaving the audience confused not knowing whether this is a buddy film or an honorable testament to these men who were long unknown and overlooked. “The Monuments Men” cannot decide whether it wants to be viewed with gravitas or mirth and sadly, it cannot support both. In the best dramas, we laugh as a coping mechanism for the horror and pain. We laugh with empathy, or maybe because we don’t want to cry. Not because it is forcing comedy down your throat. There is ONE good scene in this film with Murray and Balaban, and it is subtle and non-verbal. It allows the actors to show truth and tenderness, sorrow and the aching loneliness of war even amidst your fellow soldiers. It is mercifully devoid of the stilted and flat dialogue which fills the film.
I cannot recall a film where the score has been such a persistent irritant as it in “The Monuments Men.” Around every corner, leaping out of what could have potentially been a powerful scene, or at least a somewhat cohesive scene, here came the ‘Gomer-Pyle-stereotypical-US of A-march’ song which swept over and cheapened everything, obliterating all in its path like a sonic tsunami. It is maudlin and so unimaginative its ridiculous and I feel certain that is NOT what Clooney intended.
I could go on, but why? Much like the Ridley Scott/Cormac McCarthy horrific “The Counselor” of 2013, its just wreck, but without scantily clad beautiful women. Even the Ghent Altarpiece’s naked Eve isn’t enticing enough to make it worth the price of entry.