Saturday, 15 February 2014

Film Review: The Monuments Men (2014)

Director: George Clooney
Screenplay: George Clooney and Grant HeslovStars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and John Goodman

The Monuments Men is a textbook example of how vitally important narrative and story is to the success or failure of a film. No amount of star power can make up for a lack of compelling reasons to care about what happens to whom or why it happens, but this film is doing its damndest to try. On this occasion however, Mr Clooney’s winning persona and smile just doesn’t cut it.

You’d be forgiven for thinking from the promotional material for George Clooney’s latest directorial effort is shaping up to be Ocean’s Eleven: The Wars Years with its poster full of famous names and famous, telling us this will be the ‘greatest art heist in history’. One can’t blame the marketing department for trying to sell us that film because if audience knew the truth they’d have a hard time convincing us to hand over our money. Simply put, The Monuments Men delivers a monumental disappointment.

The Second World War is full of incredible stories both on and off the battlefield and the decision to tell this particular facet is entirely justified. I am fascinated by stories such as this one which saw attempts to retrieve art and valuable items of cultural importance from the Nazis; we know Hitler didn’t order cities like Oxford to be bombed because he appreciated the architecture and history, yet he had no regard for the lives of 6 million Jews. The conflicted ideologies of such men, and the efforts of those who dared to stop them will forever be a subject of great interest.

Why then, given such an interesting and untold (cinematically speaking) story, is this film such a let-down? The answer is multi-faceted, but it all points to the same conclusion; narrative and tone, both of which are at odds with each other. The story sees a band of soldiers forming a team to pull the ‘greatest art heist in history’ yet we know nothing about why these men were chosen, what their background is (other than the briefest of job titles), what they bring to the mission, or why it is important to them other than the obvious reasons. This is bad enough but when those soldiers are played by Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Bob Balaban the problems are magnified tenfold.

The actors are given nothing in the way of character background or motivation to work with, and there’s not even some quirky charm for Murray, Goodman, or Balaban to play on which you come to expect when casting them. That’s not to say they can or should only play to type but when they are given nothing it makes you wonder why they were cast? For gravitas? Perhaps. But more likely it’s because they don’t look like the regular soldiers we see in WWII film; one is large, one is in his senior years, and one can deliver deadpan expressions. What a waste.

Now we have seven men we know nothing about at least their mission will be of interest, right? Wrong. There is no heist nor there is any real fact finding or planning to get us hooked and looking forward to the missions; for the first 80 minutes of this two hour film there is such little momentum that the film is in danger of falling over, and it is made even worse by the attempts to manufacturer emotions by punctuating the script with attempts at comedy which are never funny or attempts at reminding us how terrible the Nazis are, as if we didn’t already know. When one character dies it has no impact on us, but the plot depends on it to motivate the team to find one statue in particular to honour his sacrifice. This is an impossible task considering the man has spent all of five minutes on screen.

There are good individual scenes such as when Bill Murray’s character listens to a record sent by his daughter, reminding us of how hard it is to be away from our loved ones, but in this film it is completely misjudged because we know nothing about him. Similarly a scene where Matt Damon steps on a landmine and the team help to set him free is perfectly fine as comedic beat but it’s followed up immediately by them finding a barrel full of gold taken from the teeth of holocaust victims. The uneven tone of the film means it never has the chance to settle and the audience grows increasingly restless.

The same faults lie in the score by Alexandre Desplat. The score is superb and I’m sure to be buying it soon but it suffers the same fate as a terrific action movie score when you don’t care about the action; it draws attention to itself but there is a failing on the director’s side to match his visuals with the music. Clooney clearly has an appreciation for the classical Hollywood era, as can be seen in his films Leatherheads, Good Night and Good Luck, and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German but here he is trying too hard to remind us of 1950s war films with genuinely good, faultless, earnest characters and speeches about how ‘we can’t let the Krauts get away with this’ whilst at the same time promising us a film about missions, heists, and stealing from the Nazis, whilst showing scenes with lacklustre banter and a distinct lack of camaraderie.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: At the start of the year I made one of those meaningless top five most anticipated films of the 2014, based purely on the pedigree of the cast and crew involved. The Monuments Men was at number five because I could see no way this story and this cast could disappoint, but how wrong I was. Despite all actors being perfectly fine and the film giving us a great score, I could see this as being the most disappointing film of the year.

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