Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Dumb dealings in Nazi art war

  • 13 March 2014

The Monuments Men (M). Director: George Clooney. Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban. 118 minutes

A dilemma. The Monuments Men have discovered a stash of stolen artworks, secreted by the Nazis in an old copper mine. But the locals have sealed the mine, fearful that the departing Germans will destroy the works as their erstwhile empire crumbles. There's no time to dig their way in; the Russians will be here soon, and will claim the stash for themselves. What's a Monuments Man to do?

The camera pans slowly to Matt Damon, who is deep in thought. Then, a lightbulb moment: addressing the officer in charge, he deadpans, 'Do we have any explosives?'

It's a dumb moment, in a film replete with dumb moments. Clooney has done fine work as a filmmaker, but The Monuments Men is misjudged at almost every step.

It tells the story of a squad of American and British academics and artisans, the so-called Monuments Men, led by Clooney's and Damon's art scholars, who are charged with locating, identifying and preserving important buildings and works of art in Europe during the final days of the Second World War. An intriguing premise, but Clooney's execution is intermittently goofy and cloying and rarely compelling.

Mostly it is disappointing, because on paper this sounds like a gem. In addition to Clooney and Damon, the ensemble cast includes Goodman, Murray and Balaban, comedic actors who are also capable of tremendous gravitas. And there is a certain satisfaction to be had from seeing these actors in frame together.

But only Murray's abilities are capitalised on. As aged architect Richard Campbell he features in two of the film's scarce good scenes: a tense-comedic one in which he affably defuses a potentially fatal encounter with a scared young German soldier; and the film's only genuinely touching scene, in which Campbell weeps in the shower while listening to a recording of his grandchildren singing a Christmas carol.

Goodman and Balaban, like the rest of the cast, are mostly left to spout dumb and unfunny dialogue — Grant Heslov and Clooney's screenplay is a big part of the problem, as it really contains some of the clunkiest dialogue you are likely to hear this year.

It makes an unintentional joke, for example, of a sort-of romance between Damon's James Granger, and Cate Blanchett's Claire Simone, a French national who holds the key to the Monuments Men's mission.