George Clooney regularly uses his clout as one of the most bankable movie stars to write, produce and/or direct more interesting, more challenging projects. This practice has created an impressive group of films that keeps his fans happy and eagerly anticipating his next works.
Well, 'next' is "The Monuments Men" about a group of men commissioned o save the world's leading artworks from Hitler's war machine and the dictator's voracious appetite to take everything the world has to offer as his own.
"Monuments" was originally scheduled to be released last December, in prime Awards competition season, ready to compete with the Best of the Best. Them the studio abruptly changed the release date to February. Hmmmmmmm. That is NEVER a good sign. But the studio PR machine began to spin a good tale; Clooney wanted and needed more time to finish the polish, the effects on the film. It worked. It convinced me.
Now, after watching "Monuments", I see the correct phrase should be "They fooled me."
Studios do not change release dates for films they have confidence in. They don't move films out of Awards competition if it has a chance of winning an Oscar.
"Monuments" is not a bad film, but it is a mediocre film. Given he cast and crew involved, it is also a disappointment.
Clooney, morphing into a late-career Clark Gable, plays Frank Stokes, the architect of the mission , the leader of the seven American men, beyond their prime to fight, tasked with heading to France and Germany to save thousands of artworks from Hitler in the final days of the war. He rounds the men up and they head to France. They soon split up and follow different leads about different pieces of art before meeting up again, trying to stay one step ahead of the Germans, who are trying to destroy everything in their path as they retreat, and one step ahead of the Russians, determined to sweep everything they find into the Communist machine.
Each character gets a brief introduction and each makes a reference or a joke about someone else, giving us the indication they have a history together, but the relationships are assumed, not illustrated. Then, they begin working on the plan to save artworks by splitting up. This serves to create an episodic storyline, concentrating on smaller groups and does nothing to help us get to know any of the characters in anything more than a superficial way.
Because the film doesn't really create characters, they simply 'are', we don't really get to know them. And this makes us care less about them. As the groups split up, chasing specific masterpieces, they encounter danger, but the result is surprisingly suspense free. When the danger surfaces, your attention is held but because you are waiting for something to happen, something to move you, something to cause you to sit on the edge of your seat, when this doesn't happen, you begin to lose interest.
The lack of character development is a shame because Clooney is a talented writer/director and he is a good actor. But the characters regard each other much like the cast of an "Ocean's" film, all jokes and kidding. In "Monuments", there is a definite feeling these characters are an extension of Danny Ocean and his crew pulling off another heist. This almost seems to be a sequel, or a sequel created by a less accomplished writer/director, who just assumes you know what you need to know about the characters.
It is also a shame because Clooney has rounded up a pretty terrific cast. Matt Damon plays James Granger, a restorationist enlisted to go to Paris and meet with Claire Simon (Cate Blanchett), a French woman who worked with the Germans to catalog the artwork they stole. These two characters are the centerpiece of the film and they actually have a few moments throughout to establish a relationship. Bill Murray plays Richard Campbell, an architect from Chicago, who gets paired off with Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), a stage director. John Goodman's Walter Garfield is teamed with Jean Dujardin's Jean Claude Clermont. Hugh Bonneville plays Donald Jeffries, a disgraced British officer given a second chance with this new assignment.
The lack of suspense is particularly evident in a few scenes. Late in the film, the story becomes a game of cat and mouse; the Americans are trying to stay ahead of both the Germans and the Russians, each for their own, very different reasons. As each of the three groups begins crisscrossing Germany, we watch, but the filmmakers fail to engage us and we simply don't feel the suspense. At one point, they discover a barrel filled with gold fillings. The characters who make the discovery seem shocked when they realize what it means, but they don't feel the horror that we now know. Maybe they didn't know about the extent of the death camps. But if that is the case, why mention it at all. There is a confrontation with an SS officer, an officer who was involved in an earlier confrontation with one of the stars. But when he is confronted, there is simply nothing there, nothing to make use feel suspense or horror.
And because we don't really feel any suspense, watching the film becomes akin to watching a documentary on the History Channel. One of those documentaries filled with reenactments.
Check out John Frankenheimer's 1964 film "The Train" starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield and Jeanne Moreau. It is a much better film depicting a very similar story.