The Monuments Men is a tinderbox of movie charisma. George Clooney and Matt Damon are the leads, while supporting parts are filled by the likes of Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville and The Artist himself, Jean Dujardin. Yet even tinder needs to be lit.
Clooney, who also serves as director and co-writer, doesn’t provide that spark (it’s another reminder that Steven Soderbergh delivered more than pretty pictures for the Ocean’s Eleven reboot). Movie stars – no matter how charming – still need dialogue matching their talent, scenes structured toward their strengths and a narrative that gives them something to do.
The Monuments Men seems to believe it only needs stars.
The Monuments Men, which dramatizes the true story of an American platoon charged with preserving precious European art pieces in the final days of World War II, seems to believe it only needs stars. The movie’s opening section, in which Clooney’s Frank Stokes gathers his crew, barely bothers to give us a sense of these men. Their characters might as well have been named Matt Damon, Bill Murray, etc. In fact, it wasn’t until after the film that I realized I had almost no idea who Clooney’s Stokes even was. A current military officer? A retired veteran? An art professor? As far as The Monuments Men was concerned, it didn’t matter. He was played by George Clooney – that’s all we really need to know.
Once the crew embarks on its mission, the movie adopts the fractured, parallel structure of episodic television. Damon’s character is sent to Paris, where he seeks an art curator played by Blanchett (they’re a poor match). Murray is left to drolly bicker with another team member, played by Bob Balaban, while Goodman and Dujardin take off in another direction. (The latter pairing had me imagining an animated endeavor involving Baloo and Pepe Le Pew.)
Disparate in tone and fairly flat, these scenes are left hanging on their own – and often out to dry. The same could be said for the movie’s stars. The Monuments Men disproves an old entertainment adage: no matter how charismatic the performer, you really don’t want to watch them read the phone book.