' ' Cinema Romantico: The Monuments Men

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Monuments Men

Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Pvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), academics more than G.I.’s, find themselves in a nighttime Mexican standoff with a German soldier. But, you will notice straight away the lack of tension, the absence of expectant music on the soundtrack. Instead it is all a bit leisurely – so leisurely, in fact, that Campbell decides the best course of action is to sit down. So he does, and Savitz and the German soldier follow suit. Campbell offers them each a cigarette. They all light up. No one pulls the trigger. They all walk away clean. This is “The Monuments Men” in capsule – it may be set in the midst of the European Theatre of WWII, but it all it really wants to do is sit down and have a smoke.

This does not have to be bad thing. In fact, it can a very good thing, a great thing even, if the film commits to that tenor and the director at the helm provides a light touch. “The Monuments Men”, however, is something of a casual disaster, a tonal meltdown, a film that transposes Bill Murray eating homemade jerky with plaintive shots of concentration camps, a sometimes jaunty “Knute Rockne All American”-esque music score with a swelling, uber-patriotic “Saving Private Ryan”-esque music score, and with no earthly idea how to blend the two.

George Clooney is a helluva a movie star but as a director and writer (he does both here), he leaves an extravagant amount of wanting, his narrative often devoid of both mere cause and effect and an ability to make clear just where its roving characters are and what they are doing. And in his own hands as an actor, his charisma is caught in quicksand. This isn’t a WWII Danny Ocean, this is Johnny Depp pretending to be a math professor in “The Tourist.” 

The film’s based-on-a-true-story idea is compelling. As the war rages, it becomes evident that Hitler is stealing and stashing every valuable piece of art on the continent in the hopes of curating a museum in his own honor. Alas, if the Nazis are to lose, and it’s headed that way, he has given the order that all the art is to be destroyed. Enter historian Frank Stokes (Clooney), introduced by lecturing President Roosevelt on the finer points of art, which is apropos because Clooney spends much of the film lecturing via voiceover in regards to its overriding theme. I half-wonder if voiceover was added in editing when it was realized how little of the film’s Art-Is-Worth-Saving motif was conveyed through traditional cinematic channels of character interaction and dramatic confrontation. The editing, in fact, often resorts to dissolves, which could suggest an old-fashioned spirit, but could also suggest editors scrambling to get the hell outta moments that weren’t working.

Stokes assembles a squad of art historians remade as military men who dash about France to reclaim the stolen paintings and scultptures. The actors, unfortunately, are forced to skate by on their readymade personas. Jean Dujardin grins. John Goodman is hefty. Matt Damon is square. Bill Murray is laconic. Bob Balaban is wry. They all stand around in handsome frames like opened cans of flat pop. Even so, they are all good enough to at least denote some sort of camaraderie, and in that way “The Monuments Men” could have – and probably should have – been a hoity-toity, booksmart “Dirty Dozen.”

The cinematography, art direction and production design here are all peerless. Filmed on location in Europe, the settings appear authentic, our intrepid Monuments Men often standing before towering piles of rubble. Yet, I wonder if this film would have been better to forgo the piles of rubble, and shoot for more of an old world Hollywood back lot feel. That would have lessened the historical authenticity, but might have upped the energy.

The film’s most insulting misstep, however, is the strange neglect of its most vital character, Claire Simon (Cate Blanchett). She is a Paris museum curator, the requisite bookish woman who magically becomes beautiful when she takes off her glasses and lets her hair down. She is vital because she has, daringly, been tracking every piece of art taken by the Nazis and where it has been hidden. It becomes Lt. James Granger’s (Damon) responsibility to enlist Claire’s aid. She consistently refuses. Until she doesn’t. Why she suddenly has trust in him when she was so resistant is never clear, nor is her sudden romantic interest in him, but so few things are in “The Monuments Men.”

Nevertheless, when she grants her trust, she invites Granger for a “formal” dinner. He shows up dressed rather informally. So she brings out a tie and makes him put it on. Formal, informal, either/or, who knows? “The Monuments Men” sure doesn’t know.


Candice Frederick said...

doesn't sound like a must-see...

Nick Prigge said...

Definitely not. It's a good "Hey, this is on TNT" movie.