The Monuments Men thinks you're stupid
Starring George Clooney and Matt Damon. Rated PG. Now playing
It’s hard to imagine how you could miss with a big-budget recreation of the real-life reclamation of high art looted by the Nazis. And yet red flags go up, literally, in The Monument Men’s first scene, set in 1943, in which a leading art scholar lobbies president Roosevelt to save Europe’s treasure by showing him maps depicting the war’s current progress. Just what he needed!
The strategy of pitching everything over the heads of the participants, to reach an audience presumed to be innocent of history, permeates the entire production. This two-hour puzzlement was produced, directed, and co-written by George Clooney, who previously created edgier fare, like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Goodnight, and Good Luck. He also stars as the abovementioned scholar, based on George Stout, founder of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program that, in reality, employed hundreds of soldiers and civilians and had genuine support from FDR and general Eisenhower.
Despite having spawned several books and a terrific PBS documentary (The Rape of Europa), the facts were not deemed sufficiently entertaining by Clooney and company. Instead, they settled on an awkwardly genial Ocean’s Eleven format, with a crack team assembled to respond to a heist, not stage one.
We’re told that the fictionalized, sometimes superannuated characters played by John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin and, most prominently, Matt Damon, are all restorers, technicians, and specialists, but their skills don’t come into play at any point. The actors are primarily used for their deadpan physiognomies, to set up a jokey tone that’s entirely at odds with Alexandre Desplat’s pompous, faux-Elmer Bernstein score and the grandiose imagery of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (who worked dry as toast in the black-and-white Nebraska).
The Damon character drifts through a vaguely insulting subplot trying to de-ice a Parisian curator played (not well) by Cate Blanchett, while Clooney gives numerous speeches about how important art is to, you know, society and all that. Remarkably, this mile-high message in no way inspired anyone to display the paintings and artifacts so coveted by advancing and retreating armies in any manner imaginative enough to actually convey what all the fuss was about. The filmmakers thought we were stupid going in, and decided to leave us that way in the end.