'The Monuments Men' Review: Clooney's Auteur Status Takes New Hit

'The Monuments Men' Review: Clooney's Auteur Status Takes New Hit

Now we know why George Clooney’s The Monuments Men didn’t get released during Oscar Season.

The World War II dramedy, directed, co-written and starring Clooney, is a mediocre ode to the men who saved many western culture masterpieces from the Nazis’ clutches.

The project was slated for a late 2013 release before Clooney and co. said they needed more time in post to make it right. Yet the Clooney brand, combined with a starry cast–Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray and John Goodman–made it seem like Oscar bait.

That so-called brand is certainly a work of fiction these days, particularly when Clooney is behind the camera. Between the overrated Good Night, and Good Luck, Leatherheads and now The Monuments Men, the dapper star is best suited for close-ups.

The true story behind Monuments is perfect film fodder, a tale of ordinary men who risked their lives to save the greatest art ever produced, as well as preserving the cultures behind them.

Clooney stars as Frank, an art historian tasked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to assemble a dream team of experts to prevent Hitler from destroying a crush of European art. All the while, these Monuments Men must avoid stepping on the toes of Allied forces looking to deliver a KO to Hitler’s goons.

The dramatic potential is palpable, the balance between protecting culture versus putting people in harm’s way for what amounts to paint on canvas. The film never maximizes that angle beyond several moist-eyed speeches.

Clooney the screenwriter repeatedly stops the film cold to remind us what is at stake. The preachy moments befit a rookie screenwriter, not an Oscar winner turned scribe. These story hurdles wouldn’t impact the film had the rest of Monuments delivered on its promise.

The film’s comedic spirit, generated mostly by Murray and Goodman, fit awkwardly into the film’s serious mission. Clooney’s touch is far more delicate, and profound, when highlighting the sacrifices being made by Frank’s team. A Christmas sequence, in particular, is a bona fide hankie moment.

The tortured subplot involving Damon’s character and a suspicious French curator (Blanchett) makes sure the film’s energy saps every 15 or so minutes. 

Clooney the director deserves credit for the look of the film, the appreciation for its heroes and the throwback nature of the storytelling. This isn’t another crush of fast edits and hip montages. Clooney has an old fashioned, in the best sense of the word, sense of piecing a film together. It’s just a shame his screenplay doesn’t offer enough narrative drive to complement those sensibilities.

The Monuments Men isn’t a total misfire, what with the game cast and a compelling true story behind it. Still, Clooney could have done the tale a greater service had he handed the project off to a more gifted auteur.