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The Monuments Men

Posted by martinteller on February 6, 2014

A sneak preview!  How exciting!  The chance to see a big Hollywood movie two days before the rest of the country!  And I got in for free!  Jealous?  Well, keep in mind that we had to wait out in the freezing cold for nearly half an hour, and that we had to check in our cell phones and be searched before going in to the theater, and that there was an least another half hour (hard to say how long without my phone) of waiting around before the movie actually started.  Also, keep in mind that this movie kinda sucks.

“Based on” a true story (i.e., do your research if you want to know how factual any of this stuff is), the film follows the exploits of Frank Stokes (George Clooney, also writer/director) and his unlikely band of “Monuments Men” (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville).  The men are trying to reclaim artwork stolen by the Nazis, a task that becomes more urgent when it is discovered that Hitler has ordered all of it to be destroyed in the event of defeat… which is impending.  A potential wellspring of information lies in Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a museum employee now accused of collaboration and distrustful of anyone.

On the plus side, these are all certainly likable actors.  The film presents some exciting or intriguing scenarios, and is often punctuated with lively humor.  Particularly amusing is the wry banter between Murray and Balaban, or the running (but thankfully not quite run into the ground) joke about Damon’s poor grasp of the French language.  And this story simmers with potential.  But it’s wasted.  The movie is an utter mess, from the very beginning.  Who is Frank Stokes?  Who are all these other guys?  How do they know each other?  Apparently it doesn’t matter.  In a whirlwind montage, we’re introduced to each character with the barest biographical info (name, occupation) and we’re off to the war.  These folks are lucky to get a single defining character trait.  We hear that Bonneville has a drinking problem, but he’s on the wagon and it doesn’t seem to affect anything.  Clooney and Damon each have a wife and kids.  Balaban is unhappy with his rank as private.  Dujardin is French.

There’s so little interest in these characters.  And not much interest in the art, either.  Clooney gives some bland, grade-school lectures about the importance of rescuing culture, but the film does nothing to make the viewer feel passionate about the task, or even to convince us that the players feel especially passionate about it.  Most of the attention is focused on saving two works: a Madonna statue by Michelangelo in Bruges, and the Ghent Altarpiece.  Not being an art scholar, I had never heard of the latter and was curious to know more about it and what made it so important.  All we get is a tossed-off line about how it’s the “cradle of the Catholic Church” or something like that.  Okay.  It doesn’t matter, I guess, as evidenced by the fact that everything else is simply “big ass piles of art”.

And so if it’s not about the people and it’s not about the art, what is this movie?  It’s a jumble of anecdotes.  We’re tossed willy-nilly from one to another, often without much indication of how we got here.  Here’s Goodman and Dujardin dealing with a sniper.  Here’s Balaban and Murray confronting a young Nazi soldier.  Here’s Damon standing on a landmine.  They’re often fine, entertaining anecdotes, but are put together so damn sloppily.  The whole thing with Damon and Blanchett makes little sense, and what’s the deal with that scene of Damon in an airplane?  Watching this movie makes your brain question it on the most basic levels.  What?  Why?  Where?  If ever a film needed to be longer, this is it.  Give me some backstory, give me a reason to really care about what I’m seeing.

There’s a bunch of other little problems.  The ham-fisted score, the distractingly poor tonal shifts, the awkward handling of the Holocaust (I’d almost rather they didn’t try to refer to it at all).  And I can only assume the film is littered with historical inaccuracies and dramatic license (the lyrics we hear for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” didn’t exist until later).  It takes more than a cast of charming stars and a witty script to make a movie.  That script needs glue to hold it together, and the stars need at least one dimension to their characters.  Rating: Poor (42)

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