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The Monuments Men

Oh, it feels so good to be back. Between the flood of cinematic dreck and the snowstorm that shut down my city last week, it’s been an awfully long month since I last wrote a blog entry on a new release. But here I am, returned to my local multiplex and ready to get back in the game. So what’s out right now?

*Endless Love (13% Tomatometer): Aw, and the trailer tried so hard not to make it look like a hackneyed Nicolas Sparks knock-off.

*Winter’s Tale (12% Tomatometer): Apparently, it’s a big steaming mess with a lot of stars who showed up as a favor to Akiva Goldsman. Again, I could have told you as much from the trailer. Also, how dare someone use that title for anything but a Shakespeare adaptation.

*Vampire Academy (10% Tomatometer): I am so far removed from this target demographic that I can’t bring myself to care.

*Labor Day (32% Tomatometer): A disappointment, given the talent involved, but the premise did look dreadfully tired.

*The Monuments Men (34% Tomatometer): …Wait, what?

Monuments Men is the movie about art historians who put themselves into a war zone to recover art stolen by the Nazis, right? The one based on a true story? Written, directed, and starring George Clooney alongside the cast of Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Cate Blanchett? And it only has a 34% critical approval rating?

I mean, sure the film was pushed back to the dreaded February dumping grounds, but I thought that was a purely strategic maneuver. Heaven knows the awards field was crowded enough last December, when the film was supposed to be released. At the time of the delay, Clooney said that more time was needed to get the CGI just right, and I took him at his word; Not enough people realize that bluescreen shots and background effects are not only ubiquitous, but vital when presenting an authentic period setting.

So how could this movie possibly be a failure? Well, George Clooney and Grant Heslov, funnily enough.

Okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair. After all, the movie’s biggest hurdle was to make art preservation into a compelling conflict with huge stakes that any layperson could understand. And on that count, the movie unquestionably succeeds. There are some very moving statements about the importance of art, both historically and as a symbol of status. It’s made abundantly clear why Hitler would want to put so much of European culture under his thumb, either to take it all down with him or to display it as a symbol of his power, depending on which way the war goes. And remember, Hitler was a student of art himself back in the day.

Yet this aspect of the film is not without flaws. It goes a bridge too far when a soldier dies trying to defend a sculpture. From that point onward, the sculpture is solely important because someone died trying to keep it out of Nazi hands. Never mind its historical value, its religious significance, or even its inherent beauty, our ragtag team has to get it back in memory of their fallen comrade. On the one hand, I appreciate that this is a kind of emotional shorthand, allowing the audience to get more invested in this particular piece of art and the greater story. On the other hand, it seems like a HUGE step backwards in terms of conveying the greater thematic ideas.

But let’s get into the major issues at hand: The dialogue and the pacing. For one thing, this is the same writer/director/producer team who gave us Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is a wordy movie. Also, given the cast involved, you’d expect this to be a very funny movie. And it is. The film is loaded with witty dialogue exchanges and some very cute banter. But that proves to be a double-edged sword.

As an example, there’s a point in the movie when John Goodman’s character and Jean Dujardin’s character get into a firefight with an unseen shooter. An action scene in a war movie. So far, so good. But then, while the characters are taking cover, they bicker between themselves about who’s going to distract the assailant and who’s going to do the actual shooting.

Do you see the problem here? Sure, the exchange is funny and it’s entertaining to see these two wonderful actors play off each other at such length. But it belongs in a different movie altogether.

The whole film is like that. Every time the film stops to sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or devotes screentime to the absolutely worthless Matt Damon/Cate Blanchett subplot, I had to stop and ask “Really? This is what we’re doing now?” It’s so hard to remember much of anything about this movie, there’s so much colorless fluff padding out the runtime.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that these slower and softer moments have their place in any movie. But in a film about art historians posing as soldiers in the middle of a war zone to save the foundation of society from Nazis, these slower moments should be the exception and not the rule. They should serve as comedic and emotional relief, not as the whole goddamn movie.

For comparison’s sake, consider another WWII movie with Matt Damon. Saving Private Ryan was good enough to use its Nathan Fillion allotment very wisely, saving his humorous talents for a much-needed comic relief scene in the midst of so much grit and violence. If the entire film had been about Private Ryan from Minnesota… well, (much like this movie) it would certainly have been watchable, but it wouldn’t have been a landmark of the genre.

For another comparison, think about Inglourious Basterds, another unorthodox movie about WWII that celebrates art (cinematic art specifically, in this case). It’s also another movie that features a whole lot of talking, let’s be honest. But that movie works because Tarantino has such a masterful ability to create a powerful undercurrent of tension, even when it’s just two people talking on the screen.

For something more recent, there’s Argo. That movie had a lot more fun with its “cinema tribute in a dangerous place and time” premise, and it still managed to keep the tension going throughout the runtime. Through every single second, from the start to the end of the climax, there was always that oppressive sense that the noose was tightening and some of the characters might not make it out alive.

But in this movie, there’s virtually no tension to be found. The pacing drags its feet, stretching the two-hour runtime to eternity, taking far too many diversions to keep things interesting and compelling. Even in those times when the narrative does present a life-or-death situation, the tension is completely ruined by the editing and the voice-overs, both of which tell us well in advance how the situation resolves itself. The one exception is the “stepped on a land mine” incident from the trailer, but that predicament is solved in such an anticlimactic manner that the whole thing is made pointless. Take that momentum away and we’re left with a funny and thoughtful — if occasionally preachy — treatise on the importance of art and history.

The Monuments Men is a very noble misfire. The comedy is cute, the story is absolutely worth telling, and the central ideas about the importance of art are quite compelling. It also helps that this cast is charming and funny enough to literally make the phone book entertaining. Unfortunately, George Clooney and Grant Heslov put themselves in way over their heads, taking on a genre that was not remotely compatible with their skill sets.

If Clooney had stayed on as the star, co-produced with Heslov, and handed off the writing/directing duties to someone else, this might easily have been a worthy awards favorite. As it is, the film is so inert that I can’t recommend it for anything more than a rental.

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