Friday, March 21, 2014

Monumentally Dull: George Clooney's The Monuments Men

George Clooney and Matt Damon in The Monuments Men

It’s an unusual criticism to make of a movie that it doesn’t aim low enough. But that’s the problem with The Monuments Men, George Clooney’s new movie about a team sent by FDR to Europe in the final years of the Second World War to root out the art the Nazis stole from the countries they conquered and protect any more of the cornerstones of western civilization from being damaged. Using as source material the non-fiction book by Robert Edsel, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, Clooney and his co-writer/co-producer Grant Heslov – his collaborator on Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March – have set about to make a wartime adventure in the square style of big-studio entertainments of the fifties and early sixties, but they’ve done it without an ounce of cheeky wit or romance. Clooney has made the movie with a sort of middle-brow integrity, but what it really needs is showmanship – an instinct for melodrama, which he lacks entirely. He and Heslov start with a sensational story and a tantalizing cast – the seven “monuments men” are played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, The Artist’s Jean Dujardin and Clooney himself as Frank Stokes, the head of the mission – and then strip the movie of just about everything that might have made it fun to watch.

The idea of a collection of middle-aged curators, art historians, artists, collectors and architects who find themselves in uniform, in danger and on a race to save some of the greatest art in the world didn’t liberate Clooney and Heslov’s imaginations; bizarrely, it appears to have stifled them. They pair Murray’s Richard Campbell and Balaban’s Preston Savitz as Mutt-and-Jeff partners who don’t think much of each other but grow to a grudging mutual affection, and Goodman’s Walter Garfield and Dujardin’s Jean-Claude Clermont because they look and sound like a big, plain-spoken Yankee and a suave Parisian. And that’s about as far as they go into the arena of character development. And since the filmmakers seem to think that playing these pairings for vaudeville would be too crass, that doesn’t leave much. When Savitz runs into a young German soldier with a gun, Campbell approaches with his, and the only thing he can think of to defuse this potentially explosive situation is to get all three of them on the ground smoking cigarettes; Murray isn’t even allowed to use his trademark irony here (Balaban just looks uncomfortable), so the scene just sits on the screen – it doesn’t have any suspense and the comedy is pallid.

Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett in The Monuments Men
Clooney hasn’t written a character for himself, either; his performance is mostly about his mustache (it’s quite dashing) and movie-star presence. Bonneville plays Donald Jeffries, a drunkard and embezzler whom Stokes and James Granger (Damon), the curator of the Metropolitan Museum, rescue by inviting him to join the crew. But once Jeffries gets on the wagon he never wavers. Would it have been so terrible if the filmmakers had allowed him to slip just once? It certainly would have juiced up Bonneville’s straight-arrow performance. In his last moments, attempting to save Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child” in the Ghent Cathedral from the hands of the Nazis, he writes a letter to his father expressing his hope that he can merit the old man’s respect after years of shame. Sanctimony is no substitute for character development, so the scene has no emotional heft; neither does the killing off of one of the other monuments men. This letter isn’t the only occasion in the movie when Clooney and Heslov fall back on the kind of sentimentality that was the price you often had to pay for entertainment in the big-studio era (really the forties more than the fifties). The movie is framed with a voice-over by Stokes, a speech given after the war, that memorializes the good deeds of the Monuments Men, and there’s an icky scene where Savitz plays a recording of Campbell’s daughter and grandchildren singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” over the PA while he showers. So you end up paying for the good time Clooney and Heslov don’t give you – it’s a bit of a swindle. And you have to wonder about a director who looked at those big-studio wartime adventures and chose to borrow only the sappiest parts.

Cate Blanchett, giving the only real performance in the movie, plays Claire Simone, an executive at the Jeu de Paume in Paris – the precursor of the Musée d’Orsay – who’s forced to work for the Nazis during the Occupation. She loathes Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi), the colonel overseeing the theft of the museum’s treasures, and her hatred and anger are her driving forces. When he leaves she trails him to the train station and yells after him in German, “I see you, Stahl!,” narrowly escaping getting shot for her nerve; this is one of the few good moments in the picture. After the Allies liberate Paris, Granger enlists her help in tracking down the stolen art, but she’s suspicious of him; she assumes that, as a high-profile museum curator and representative of a conquering power, he’s eyeing the paintings for his own institution. But when he locates a painting with the name of its Jewish owner scribbled on the back, she follows him to the deserted house from which it was filched and watches as he hangs it on an empty wall. She assures him that the owner isn’t coming back, but he insists that his job is to find and return stolen art, and this is a start: another good moment. It seems obvious that the movie is going to build on these two striking scenes – that Claire will be somehow instrumental in Stahl’s capture and that a simpatico relationship will evolve between her and Granger out of what she’s seen him do and they’ll become lovers. Instead, Campbell and Savitz find Stahl (by accident) and Claire reads all about it in the morning paper, so she’s happy and trusting enough to invite Granger home for dinner. She even dresses for the occasion, though the dress she wears is fairly ugly and in fact Clooney does nothing in any of Blanchett’s scenes to make her look sexy. She does proposition Granger after dinner, but he’s married and resists her gently. Is Clooney out of his head? It’s bad enough that Damon, one of our most gifted actors, wanders soberly and somberly through the rest of the picture. Would it have been a sin to give these two a little sex – and the audience a little pleasure? When did Clooney get so goddamn high-minded?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. If The Monuments Men never overcomes its unwieldy structure and unevenness of tone, the film still manages to make a profound, even subtle point: that Hitler's darkest impulses and annihilating reach extended from human beings to history itself.