The Monuments Men (2014)
Dir: George Clooney
George Clooney assembles an unlikely group of skilled expert men to steal valuables from under the nose of an evil powerful man. ‘Oceans Eleven’ right? Wrong. So very and somewhat unfortunately wrong
Nearing the end of the second World War, art professor Frank Stokes (George Clooney) realises that all the art that Hitler has been accumulating is at risk of being lost forever and so assembles platoon consisting of a group of art experts (including Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray) to help recover as many valuable pieces back from the Nazis as possible.
Such an interesting and largely unknown part of WWII history, was clearly a story worth telling so it’s clear to see why it was developed into a screenplay but the resulting film itself is sorely lacking. The film is far from terrible, with such a good cast, writer, and the studio support it clearly had due to these elements, it was always going to be a well-financed and therefore decent looking film. Where it falls short is in the tone. I know I can only speak for myself, but the more emotionally charged parts didn’t tug at my heartstrings and the dramatic parts didn’t have me in tension, I felt strangely disconnected, and I can understand why there are clear reasons I felt the way I did.
Maybe the fault is with me, I was obviously expecting one of two things from this film, and rather than getting neither I got both. While that may sound like a good thing, it’s not when you feel like neither of the two was satisfying. It’s like a cocktail, you may order a drink with two flavours you want in it but you want to be able to enjoy both in the right balance, so a vodka and coke is not so enjoyable if it’s too heavy on the vodka or the coke, there’s a proportion that works and in that case and this it’s not 50/50.
In some respects it’s both a war movie, and a heist movie (as the official tagline declares it to be ‘the greatest art heist in history’), with battles ongoing and war around them these experts are meant to be stealing art right from under Hitler’s nose, ideally before his soldiers can get to it. As stated before on this blog, I love heist movies, there’s something inherently exciting about them and when done well the viewer can get wrapped up in the execution of the heist and feel some sense of the exhilaration of pulling off the job, while also being surprised by the twists in how it’s accomplished and the perils of being caught. It’s more than incidental that George Clooney and Matt Damon feature in one of the best examples of the genre, Soderbergh’s ‘Oceans Eleven’, inevitably reminding of that film and causing unflattering comparison. War movies have interesting crossover elements, namely a sense of peril, so the idea of accomplishing what is essentially a heist in the midst of a war should be doubly exciting.
The other issue is that when you assemble an ensemble including Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, you immediately have a cast that resembles a Wes Anderson film, and with other cast members being George Clooney and John Goodman it also could resemble a Coen brothers film, not to mention Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin in there too and you could be completely forgiven for expecting a comedy, even a caper. There are many moments in the film geared towards comedy, some hit the mark, many do not. The mix of heist and comedy can absolutely work, most good heist movies do have a light and fun tone, but remember, this is also a war film with a very serious point to make. In the end, this mix causes to film to feel unsure of its own intentions. The seriousness feels ineffective and undermined by the promise of comedy elicited by the cast, but then the comedy that should be natural and effective thanks to the capable cast just feels half-hearted and ill-fitting.
I understand the need for historical events to be portrayed well and with a level of accuracy, but I wanted the recovery of the art to be more exciting. It was neither light-hearted, nor dramatic, it tried to be a balance of both yet ends up feeling uncomfortably sat on a fence. If it had taken one of those two and made it more prominent it would have worked considerably better, either an exciting and dramatic adventure in which these men hunt and recover art right from under Nazi noses, or a fun adventure in which they do the same but with the moments of sadness when certain events occur. More of one or the other was key. A change in tone to fit that expectation of humour and it would be a completely different film, maybe further from award contention but more enjoyable and engaging as laughter is an engaging reaction. Or change the cast slightly so as to not create false expectations of comedy and rethink some of the comedic (even farcical) moments, then you could have a fascinating and powerful war film. I know history must be recounted honestly, and these men have family that are likely alive, but it’s also meant to be a film that entertains, and so heightening either the humour or drama would help it to be more effective.
Originally this was seen as an awards season ‘shoe in’, even a strong Oscar contender before release. In the end it completely failed to appear in nominations, on release critics stated that it felt lacking, some went as far as to call it a mess, and most agreed it fell short of whatever it was aiming for as the goal was unsure. In the hands of a different director, or with another writer helping to make adjustments, I expect this would have been a distinctly different film with a better balance of light and gravitas. A generally light tone with moments of serious poignancy can work very well, as can dramatic with lighter moments. Constantly alternating between light caper and heavy war account doesn’t work anywhere nearly as well. Sadly Clooney was somehow not able to see, or unable to effectively address these issues and so the film I saw felt like it just fell short of a clear goal. Despite the interesting historical storyline I found myself regrettably unmoved and hardly entertained and I really wanted to be at least either if not both.