Up until now, I’ve liked every movie that George Clooney has directed (yes, even Leatherheads, his 1920s screwball football comedy). So when I heard about The Monuments Men, his sixth outing as a filmmaker, I figured it probably couldn’t miss. Based on one of those reality-is-stranger-than-fiction historical incidents, it tells the unlikely story of a team of museum curators and art historians who were sent behind enemy lines during World War II to recover hundreds of pieces of art that had been pilfered by Nazi thieves. The purpose of the mission was to rescue, and preserve, the very civilization we were fighting to save.
As film material, this story would seem to have everything: suspense, hidden treasure, Nazis, aesthetic resonance — and a chance for actors like Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Clooney to cut loose in new ways, playing professorial dweebs who become cloak-and-dagger heroes. The Monuments Men sounds like a what’s-not-to-like? movie, but it turns out to be a bizarre failure. It’s not just that the film is dull — it’s that there’s no there there to like. This should have been a historical heist film, but the script, by Clooney and Grant Heslov, leaves out the heist, or anything else of conventionally pleasing intrigue. The basic detective story — how did these men locate the works? — barely makes it into the foreground. What’s there instead? A bunch of wispy anecdotal scenes that go nowhere, with characters who are too underwritten to be called Johnny one-notes; most of the actors hardly get a note to hum. The key trait of Damon’s character, for instance, is that he speaks French badly (this results in quels hi-larious fractured-syntax subtitles). As for Murray, Goodman, and Jean Dujardin, they all stand around dropping toothless quips into the void.
As the art restorer who organizes the mission, Clooney gives himself way too many lofty lines in which he explains why saving art is worth the price of soldiers’ lives. He makes the case, but that isn’t a movie — it’s closer to a high-toned movie pitch meeting, with a built-in liberal subtext about the trashing of artifacts during the Iraq war. Next time, Clooney should make sure that the film he’s making is as good as the pitch. C-