George Clooney has proven to be an interesting director (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck.) as well as a reliably strong actor whether in typical Hollywood star turns (the Ocean’s trilogy) or in riskier, more daring roles (The Descendants, Gravity). All of which makes The Monuments Men such a perplexing film. It finds Clooney directing and starring in a bizarre vanity project that exists because he wanted to make it, and he managed to attach an all-star cast.
The film is not without its charms – many, in fact. Frank Stokes (Clooney) convinces the U.S. president that saving the art treasures of Europe, which have been looted by the Nazis, should be an Allies priority. Granted the commission, he organizes an odd platoon of art experts to undertake the mission, but instead of misfits and perverts, Stokes gathers a Dirty Dozen-type team of academics and professionals (museum curators, a sculptor, and an architect). This group is played by Damon, Goodman, Dujardin, Bonneville, and Murray and Balaban as an oddly comic duo. The film is painted on the grand scale of World War II, an epic landscape of military equipment, armies, and destroyed villages to tell a rather tight and much simpler detective tale: tracking down and rescuing art. Rarely has a militaristic production this grand not been concentrated on war.
The failure of The Monuments Men is in its lack of coherence. Clooney’s irregulars are desperately trying to find the stolen art treasures of Europe not only before the retreating Nazis destroy them but also to get to them ahead of the advancing Russians, who are just as interested in claiming them. Maps are shown but there really are no recognizable geographic logistics in their race. We are told where we have been, where we are, and where we’re going, but there is no interior logic to the film by which this makes sense.
The film is loaded with great scenes. That’s no surprise, since this terrific cast turns in excellent performances. There are many fine moments, some suspenseful ones, any number of comic scenes, as well as a few that are touching and moving. There is a sweet subplot involving art curator James Granger (Damon) and embittered Parisian art connoisseur and accused collaborator Claire Simone (Blanchett).
Ultimately, however, this film is a collection of vignettes in search of a narrative center. Although it’s enjoyable, the film never coheres into a whole. Instead, it resembles a pile of ill-fitting jigsaw-puzzle pieces rather than a fully formed picture.