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The Monuments Men

Sony Pictures
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Director: George Clooney
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett
Duration: 118 mins
Rating: M
Release Date: 13 March, 2014

Stephen A Russell says: There’s a certain school of thought that George Clooney can do no wrong; that he’s a debonair screen presence, a witty writer and sterling director too. I remain unconvinced about any of the above.

It’s certainly true that his writing/directing debut, the stylishly black and white Good Night, And Good Luck, had a certain charm, but that’s starting to look like beginner’s luck. Leatherheads and The Ides of March took a sharp nosedive, but with his latest, The Monuments Men, Clooney has dashed upon a shonky nadir of unbelievably awful proportions, so much so that it’s a struggle to endure its cringe-inducing two hours.

Clooney also stars as art historian Frank Stokes, based on a real man named George Leslie Stout, who managed to convince an at first resistant President Roosevelt that the Nazis grand theft and/or sweeping destruction of countless European artworks was worth risking the lives of several men (and women) to protect.

Penned with regular Clooney collaborator Grant Heslov and based on the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, the real Monuments Men numbered in their hundreds, and consisted of many nationalities. Here they’re boiled down to a rag tag handful of composite characters, all clunky stereotypes and largely American.

The team includes strangely muted performances by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Jean Dujardin who all seem to have been directed to work against the copious collective natural charm they posses. None shine, nor is there any real sense of camaraderie in this leaden team-up flick. Often their interactions come across like a cartoon that forgot to be funny.

Cate Blanchett, who always adds a welcome dash of gravitas, does what she can as a Parisian museum boss turned resistance fighter who has kept a track of the Nazis pilferings. It’s a shame they couldn’t have cast an actual French actress (of which there are several working in Hollywood) though, as her accent leaves a lot to be desired, proving quite distracting.

There’s definitely a compelling argument to be made for the protection of art at the risk of human casualties, as a vital part of civilisation to be protected from the barbarian hordes, but you’ll not find a convincing defence here.

Clunky, leaden and overly simplistic, the tone is all over the place in The Monuments Men, as ably demonstrated by one of the worst and most intrusive scores in many a year, oscillating wildly between patriotic pomp and saccharine schmaltz, which more or less sums up the gist of the film. Neither funny enough for black comedy nor dramatic enough to lend weight to proceedings, this is as misjudged a film as you can get.

There’s never any sense of urgency or real risk. In an attempt to mush the work of many, across international borders and several years, into a chosen few, the film resorts to great swathes of dreary exposition, failing the basic rule of filmmaking – show, don’t tell – and further ham-fisting any attempt at depth and compassion. When characters die, on come the mawkish strings and pompous speeches designed to signal noble sacrifice, but there’s just not enough weight here to sell it. When a letter writer’s last words (narrated) are literally doused in blood, you know a director hasn’t quite mastered the fine art of subtlety.

At one point, late in the game, Damon accidentally stands on a mine. It’s played for laughs, but the humour falls flat, like an extended joke that just can’t ignite.  By this point, it would be a small mercy if the film went out with a big bang. Whatever your take on Clooney’s acting abilities, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he isn’t a particularly strong writer/director. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is gorgeous, and the CGI work on show is no slouch either, but as with The Ides of March, a strong cast is no guarantee of cinematic gold.

Review courtesy of The Lowdownunder.

Rotten Tomatoes says: 33% – “Its intentions are noble and its cast is impressive, but neither can compensate for The Monuments Men‘s stiffly nostalgic tone and curiously slack narrative.”

The Guardian says: “All in all, a revisionist Hollywood hotchpotch; easy on the eye, gentle on the heart, light on the head.”

The New Yorker says: “As Stokes rounds up his crew, and takes them close to actual warfare, the movie feels like a cross between the jaunty Ocean’s Eleven and one of those large-scale films from decades ago about misfits operating behind enemy lines, like The Dirty Dozen. But the crazy-guys-at-war genre has recently been blown over the top by Quentin Tarantino, in Inglourious Basterds, and parodied by Ben Stiller, in Tropic Thunder. Do we need this latest film?”

See it: If you have no other options, or are a huge Clooney fan.

Kids? 15 and up will be likely to handle the bloodier battle scenes.