Monuments Men film is a painting-by-numbers, not a masterpiece

The Art Newspaper 13 February 2014
By Iain Millar

George Clooney’s adaptation should have been a passionate tribute to the soldiers that saved art looted during the Second World War, but it falls sadly short

An A-list ensemble cast—including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett for goodness sake—has rarely been so underemployed

It’s not as if we weren’t warned. When posters and newspaper ads for George Clooney’s “Monuments Men” started appearing in London over the last ten days or so prior to the film’s UK release this weekend, they included the tagline “It was the greatest art heist in history!” That the systematic theft and destruction of art by the Nazi regime before and during the war, much of it appropriated from Jewish collectors and dealers, could be described as a “heist” spoke volumes about the need for some urgent, if crude, PR spin. If you liked the Ocean films then why not give this a go, seemed to be the pitch.

As far back as October, Clooney was telling the Hollywood news website The Wrap that the film, adapted from Robert M. Edsel’s book about the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives programme to rescue and preserve art looted during the Second World War, was “a bit of a dance… We’re testing it—we put some laughs in there, that’s important to me, but it’s a serious subject matter.” That it was then pushed forward to 2014, missing the chance to be considered for an Oscar in the forthcoming award ceremonies, made the alarm bells ring even louder.

This is a film that looks like it was made not so much from a carefully polished script, but rather from some notes scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet after an all night session reading a good book. Clooney was producer, co-writer, lead actor and director. It’s a kindness to say that he seems out of his depth and overwhelmed. He’s always watchable but here seems to be phoning in a generic Clooney performance. The script is lumpy, the direction pedestrian and one can only assume that as producer he must have sunk his own money into a film that was batted away by the “Lego Movie” on its opening weekend in the US, a somewhat different take on the plastic arts.

Veering wildy between one-liner humour, overegged pathos and woolly self-righteousness about the task taken on by the (heavily fictionalised) group of art experts on the hunt for stolen work, it’s more like a series of preparatory sketches than a fully realised final piece.

And an A-list ensemble cast—including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett for goodness sake—hasn’t been so underemployed since Jeff Bridges, Joe Pantoliano, Ted Danson and Tim Blake Nelson appeared in 2007’s “The Amateurs”, about a group of deadbeat friends making an amateur porn film in a hick midwest town.

The true scale and consequences of the Nazi’s pillage was covered in expert depth by Robert Bevan in the February 2014 edition of The Art Newspaper. “Monuments Men” the movie didn’t need to be a wholly accurate retelling of the true story; artistic licence is, to a large degree, a necessity. But what it simply had to be was a passionate and urgent tribute to why the Monuments Men did what they did and why it still matters that they did it. What was needed was something at least aspiring to being a masterpiece, not the painting-by-numbers, rainy afternoon pastime that in fact we get. Clooney’s intentions were undoubtedly good. But the road that they pave is, sadly, the predictable one.

”Mouments Men” is on release in the US and opens in the UK on 14 February. Watch the trailer here:
© website copyright Central Registry 2023