February 09, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney's The Monuments Men is the latest in self-congratulatory, cheerfully conservative history-as-cinema offerings from Hollywood. It's a tad depressing that it comes from George Clooney, who has been a part of some really fine films for grown-ups like The Descendants and Up in the Air and several others I'm forgetting right now (not The Ides of March). This one is about the band of semi-soldiers enlisted to rescue priceless works of art that the Third Reich was stealing from European museums and churches and then secreting away in German mines and towns. The story is set late in the war (1944 mostly), and the men scramble around the continent, from Belgium to France to Germany. The cast will surely get your attention, and give you reason to hope for a good time during The Monuments Men: Clooney (who also directed) as the leader, Lt. Frank Stokes; Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett. All of them more or less wonderful actors who are admittedly enjoyable to watch for two hours.

There are several problems with The Monuments Men that made it mostly a disappointment for me. The first is the fact that it panders to us the audience on multiple occasions, and in some cases insults our intelligence. Somewhere along the halfway point, after the men have been involved in a number of dangerous close calls with Nazi soldiers in order to get their hands on a stolen Cezanne or a wrested Rembrandt (and even some genuine tragedies that I won't reveal for the sake of spoiler control), we get a Clooney voice-over telling us why art is worth dying for: it's our culture, our history, and if it is lost, it's as if we didn't exist. (We're reminded of this again and again in the movie, just in case it was fuzzy the first time.) I sat up straighter in my chair, pulled out my notebook, and began furiously jotting down the words of wisdom just in case there would be a quiz after the movie. I really needed an A.

If you pay close attention, you'll find that voice-overs are often utilized when the filmmakers are afraid they haven't been clear enough visually in their storytelling. Or perhaps they're worried we the audience will miss the point of their movie, so rather than allow us to figure it out in our own time, they conveniently hand it over to us in neatly packaged form for immediate digestion. But was anyone really that confused about the importance of saving art during WW2? Was there some poor befuddled audience member thinking, "Why are they going to all this trouble?" Perhaps so, but couldn't the movie have done something to show us this to underline its very obvious point?

And then there's the film's sunny disposition, which isn't necessarily a problem for me in itself--God knows we've had enough misery-inducing celluloid devoted to World War II--but this movie wants to be both a cheerful, light-hearted romp and a scathing condemnation of Hitler and tug at our heartstrings when necessary. There's one scene that stands out in particular regarding the heartstrings-tugging: It's December 1944, the men are all getting weary, and we watch them all react while an angelic young woman purs "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" over the radio. Bill Murray tears up in the shower, and I thought I could even distinguish the tears from the streams of water falling down his face. We're asked to go on this gay romp through the cobblestone streets of Europe, but when called upon, we must rail against the evils of Nazism like we're suddenly watching Schindler's List and this is one of the Auschwitz scenes. And finally, we are expected to reach for the tissues to dry our moist eyes and noses whenever something sentimental happens.

The script--by Clooney and Grant Heslov--isn't much good either. I found myself naturally tuning out much of the dialogue because it was clunky and unclear. And the attempts at humor were often thunderously over-zealous, like when the movie reminds us that Matt Damon's French is bad on no less than three separate occasions, with even the subtitles showing us his crummy translation skills. Yes, it was cute the first time, but did it need to become a running joke? We're also meant to care for these men (and one woman, played by Blanchett) and become emotionally invested in their race against time, but I felt that they were basically cardboard characters, blank slates waiting for us to project our love of masculine heroism onto them. And the movie has no suspense. You know they're going to be successful, because Hollywood wouldn't allow The Monuments Men to fail in their mission (even if they had failed in real life).

There were good parts in Monuments Men, such as the scene when Balaban and Murray are "accosted" by a very young German soldier, who lets down his guard once Murray sits down (gun in hand) and offers him a cigarette. (It's all the more amusing because the kid doesn't speak English and they don't speak German.) And the scenes with Cate Blanchett are interesting: She brings an austere intensity to her character, a French museum worker whose brother is working for the resistance and who turns out to be the key to finding much of the stolen art. But there again I find another quibble with the plot: the movie basically stalls until Matt Damon finally breaks down Blanchett's resolve. (She's suspicious of his intentions, afraid he'll capture the stolen art and send it back to the  U.S.)

Aside from the likably curmudgeonly qualities of actors like Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and John Goodman (qualities that exist outside of this film too, I might add), there's nothing of substance in Monuments Men. It has the light-heartedness of something like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (it's a kind of artistic wild goose chase that's straining for comic effect), and yet it desperately wants to be important and serious and remind us of what we've already known for some time. Hollywood movies that want to be history lessons always worry me, because I don't want movies to be as dry and well-intentioned as the average history lesson. We seem hellbent on ranking the "important" movies in terms of what moral message they can teach us. Even more problematic then is the message of Monuments Men, as it's so damned obvious. Yes, we all know that Hitler was bad. Yes, we all know that art is good. So if you want to be congratulated for liking art and hating Hitler, then this if your movie. 

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