The Monuments Men (2014)

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It’s often a good thing when a director settles into his own style, when he reaches a degree of comfort with his voice as a storyteller. It means he can spend less time obsessing over style choices and more time considering what lies at the center of the stories he’s chosen to tell. Not so George Clooney. In Leatherheads and Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney revealed a proclivity towards the atmosphere of Old Hollywood–Old America even. He also showed a modicum of nuance in the way he presented it. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men finds him exploring this inclination more single-mindedly and fruitlessly than ever before.

Monuments is built with a stubborn gentleness that suggests the last thing Clooney and Co-Writer/Producer Grant Heslov want to do is bother anybody. Perhaps they’re targeting the generation who lived through this war, and don’t want to rehash atrocities in a story capable of avoiding them. Or it could be an earnestness that just feels relevant to the two men. Either way, it’s a mistake, and the film’s chief weakness. It’s not that The Monuments Men needs to be harder, but it needs to be more; more substantial, more engaging, more focused on giving its audience something to think about. As it is, this is a film that feels like it was written on a napkin so a bunch of rich guys could trot around Europe and shoot a period piece.

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Where Clooney tends to get it right is with the stories he elects to reveal. Four of his five films to date are based on true events, all of which were compelling well before Clooney got to them. In Monuments, Clooney and Heslov have found a war story intriguing enough to, at least theoretically, muddle through some of the cloying sentiment they’re so preoccupied with, and still serve as a vehicle to deliver their dusty brand of humor. They’ve also assembled an absurd cast of actors, though rarely are any of these old titans given much to do. And so The Monuments Men becomes George Clooney’s weakest film, quavering between a misguided homage and a milquetoast throwback, unable to get past a mildly agreeable second gear. While his heart may be in the right place, few good films have been made on heart alone. Brains are important too.

poster designed by François Vigneault

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