Reviews in the Nick of Time: Monuments Men

by wjw on February 25, 2014

The_Monuments_Men_posterMonuments Men is, as they say, “based on a true story,” in this case the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program of the allied armies during World War II, an organization composed of hundreds of (mostly) artists and art historians, from many countries, who attempted to preserve art and historic buildings during the Allied advance through Europe, and who also set out to locate thousands upon thousands of looted artworks, and restore them to their original owners.

This is damned good material, and it’s surprising a movie hasn’t already been made of it.  But now Monuments Men is in theaters, and it’s a big expensive film with terrific production values, and an all-star cast including Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, and George Clooney as writer, director, producer, and star.

In accordance with the First Rule of Hollywood War Movies, the hundreds of members of the MFAA are reduced to a handful— there is never any dramatic reason why a movie squad should be more than six men, but in this case we have ten or so, one of whom (Dujardin) necessarily speaks the language of the country they’re traveling through.  (Though of course once the squad gets to Germany, the French-speaker becomes expendable— not that this is a plot spoiler or anything.)

I have elsewhere noted the demise of the service comedy genre.  There is more than a suggestion that Monuments Men should be viewed as a member in good standing of this extinct art form, in that we see the recruiting, training, and deployment of a unit of eccentric, unlikely soldiers, and there’s a lot of humor.  But I’d argue that the movie really isn’t funny enough to be a comedy— the eccentric characters get split up early on, so they don’t get a chance to play off each other as you’d expect in a war comedy.  And war comedies are, or should, involve scheming— scheming not so much to defeat the enemy, but to defeat the military bureaucracy and the stupid, stuffy senior officers who want to put a stop to the fun.

So it’s not a comedy per se, and in fact the film pretty much refuses to be one thing or another.  It’s not funny enough to be a comedy, there’s not enough action for it to be a thrilling war movie, and there isn’t nearly enough gravitas for it to be a Serious War Film along the lines of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan.  (Even though Private Ryan is in fact in the movie.)  Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heskov didn’t quite grok that writing is about decisions, and one of the decisions early on is to decide what the thing is that you’re writing.  All the sub-genres sort of slop over onto one another and the result is a flabby film, and an overlong one.

Nor do I believe that any of these characters are art historians.  I don’t know a lot of art historians, but I bet that when a bunch of them get together, they talk about art.  (Certainly when a bunch of writers get together, they may not talk about writing per se, but they’ll certainly talk about the business of writing.)

Now obviously you don’t want your art historians to deliver a lecture on art history, which would bore the chinos off the audience.  But they can argue over their interpretations of Botticelli or whatever, and it can be a funny argument, and revealing of character.  But the filmmakers were content to avoid the ostensible subject of the movie, and the result is a film that doesn’t have much at its center.

On the positive side, the film looks damned good.  And the characters are all so damned charming, and the actors are so obviously having a great time in each other’s company.  I had a pleasant enough time watching it, though I was looking at my watch during the last half-hour or so.  There are plenty worse ways to spend a couple hours, should you need to escape the weather for a while.

And you get to see some pretty pictures, too.

mearsk February 25, 2014 at 3:54 pm

I thought the movie felt “flat.” I don’t know how else to describe it. But you’re right. It wasn’t zany enough to be a comedy, there wasn’t nearly enough action to be an adventure, and it certainly didn’t take itself seriously enough to be drama. Heck, even the romance they tried to throw in there didn’t work. I guess George Clooney should have left the writing on this one to someone else.

John Appel February 26, 2014 at 11:27 pm

My son (age 16) & I watched it together on President’s Day. We rated it as good but not great; we certainly didn’t feel like we’d wasted the price of admission. It did inspire me to order the book which is siting in my to-read pile.

Brian Renninger February 27, 2014 at 4:09 am

As far as service comedies go, Stripes is the last one I can think of. The Genre may indeed be dead. There have been Military movie with comedic elements but, the comedy was not the real center of the films.

My take is that most people not having the experience of being in the military can’t relate. This may also explain why the Office Comedy does appear to be the genre of the day. Office Comedies are basically Service Comedies without, you know, the killing.

Jerry March 2, 2014 at 8:07 am

While of course I don’t always agree with your opinions about Films Reviewed Just in Time, Too Late, or Whenever (this one being a case in point), I always do find them… illuminating. Insightful. Inspired.

Such a powerful mind and voice!

Have you ever considered doing a syndicated movie column? Do you already do one under a pseudonym? If the Answer is Yes, I think you owe us, the Faithful, a hint about where to look!

wjw March 3, 2014 at 4:47 am

The problem with doing film reviewing professionally is that I’d have to see lots and lots of bad movies. I’d essentially see bad movies for a living.

But on the other hand— $$$!

The one film reviewer I knew in New Mexico lost his job when the paper downsized. So I don’t know what or where the opportunities are.

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