Director: George Clooney; Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov; Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonville, Dimitri Leonidas; Running time: 118 minutes; Certification: 12A
George Clooney’s work in the director’s chair is something I’ve always championed and felt was rather under appreciated. Boasting the likes of Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, Good Night, And Good Luck and The Ides Of March in his catalogue – three, I’d say, brilliant films which showcase just how impressive he’s capable of being – there was good reason to go into The Monuments Men, his latest drama/comedic caper set against the backdrop of World War 2 Europe as it comes to an end, with high hopes.
Unfortunately, of any of Clooney’s directorial work, this most resembles his weakest: Leatherheads. That film’s biggest problems were uninteresting characters and a dissociating story played through a tonally unbalanced script. There were things to like in it, but we never really cared about anything and overall it was a fairly dull experience. Well, that’s exactly what ends up playing out in The Monuments Men. “Uninteresting characters!” I hear you say. “With John Goodman and Bill Murray in the mix? Are you mad?” . Well that’s just it. There are so many great names in this thing, and when they show up they are entertaining (let’s face it, when is Bill Murray not brilliant?), but their characters just seem entirely incidental.
For the majority of the film, the eponymous Monuments Men split up into couples and head to different parts of Europe, supposedly in search of various historical works of art in jeopardy from the Nazis, yet for the most part it appears that they’re doing nothing. They’ll show up, maybe there will be a little joke and we chuckle, then they don’t do anything else. It often feels like a film designed to cram in a bunch of big names rather than one which actually has roles to be filled. Whether that was the case or not (probably not), it just can’t help but feel very casual and tacked together. And this is all forgetting that in the first half of the film – despite doing things rather important to the climax of the plot – we regularly forget Matt Damon is even in it.
It’s not entirely all doom and gloom; these actors make a fun ensemble, and like I already mentioned, there’s more than one occasion that we find ourselves chuckling away. The chemistry between Murray and Balaban is brilliant, yielding many of the best moments in the film; one scene involving Murray interrupting and ‘solving’ a standoff between Balaban’s Savitz and a lone Nazi soldier is priceless. We do question its reason for being there as it doesn’t seem to add to anything, but it’s great nonetheless. In the end the film is probably more comedy than drama (though it doesn’t always know it, often getting caught in between the two and losing its footing: tonal unbalance, remember?), and if you approach it that way there’s probably more fun to be had. Perhaps I was hoping too much to find something as compelling and profound and Good Night, And Good Luck, when it never even attempts or pretends to be as such.
With this latest offering, Clooney has shifted his director’s status from ‘mostly excellent’ to ‘hit and miss’. He’s proved more than once that he’s capable of crafting incredibly intelligent, compelling, gripping dramas, but he’s also managed to drop the ball once in a while. The Monuments Men, unfortunately, is such an occasion, and perhaps it’s telling that both this and Leatherheads are rooted in comedy – a trend is emerging. But there’s always next time, aye George?