When I was in second grade, my father took me with him on a business trip to Paris. I remember our hotel, and I remember drinking chocolate milk and eating Veal Milanese at a restaurant off the Champs-Elysee. What I don’t remember is the Louvre. I went in the company of a hired guide while my dad spent the day in meetings, and the guide turned out to be a militant atheist who insisted on describing the museum’s religious art in unprepossessing secular terms. A painting of the Last Supper became a depiction of a bunch of guys in robes having dinner, and so on.
That’s how I felt watching George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, a movie that proclaims the virtues of art while exhibiting none of them. Or to be more precise, its first 50ish minutes, which was about all I could stand. I don’t walk out of movies often — the last, I think, was Labor Day, and before that, The East — and never when I’m writing a review, though some movies might have been better off had I been set free earlier from their toxic embrace. Historically, I’ve been an “in for a penny, in for a pound” type, partly out of a sense of duty, partly because as a critic, you’re always waiting for the moment when a movie perfectly encapsulates its own worth or lack thereof, and you never know when that crucial piece of evidence may surface. But when I’m watching movies to see if they’re worth writing about, I’m trying to hew more closely to the New York Times‘ theater critic Walter Kerr’s famous dictum: “You don’t have to eat the whole apple to know it’s rotten.” (At Sundance, Jordan Hoffman took some brief heat for leaving The Raid 2 a few minutes before the end, but given that the movie was causing him physical discomfort at the time, it’s hard to see the final scenes might have changed.) There are too many good movies I don’t have time to watch to waste time on bad ones.
With The Monuments Men, I’m pretty sure we’re looking at a rotten apple. Halfway through, it was clear that the movie lacked all but the faintest glimmer of life, that Clooney was determined to stick to the same bland master shots, the same monotonous rhythm, the he and his co-screenwriter Grant Heslov were determined not to give their talented cast anything to do. (Seriously, how is it possible to pair Bill Murray and Bob Balaban and come up with so little?) It probably didn’t help that it had been only six months since I saw John Frankenheimer’s The Train (on 35mm, yet), which like The Monuments Men concerns the fight to keep Germany’s retreating forces from taking the artistic treasures of France (and, in the latter movie, central Europe) with them.
Of course The Train is more exciting, concentrating at it does on Burt Lancaster’s French Resistance fighter rather than the gun-toting art scholars of The Monument Men. But for all its contrived (and thrilling) set pieces, The Train also delves more deeply into the issues of what art means, the priceless heritage it embodies even for those who do not, so to speak, appreciate it. Clooney and Heslov cram that sentiment into a ponderous monologue, delivered by Clooney’s character, about how if you destroy a people’s heritage, “it’s like they never existed. It’s like ash, floating.” But The Monuments Men‘s flat division between corpulent, swinish Germans and art-loving Allies pales beside The Train‘s more provocative dichotomy between an erudite German officer and Lancaster’s burly man of action, who fights for the art’s return without understanding its worth.
But anyway, enough from me and my ejector seat. Here’s what some critics who stuck it out to the end thought.
Scott Foundas, Variety
It’s not only the great works of European art that have gone missing in The Monuments Men; the spark of writer-director-star George Clooney’s filmmaking is absent, too…. Clooney has transformed a fascinating true-life tale into an exceedingly dull and dreary caper pic cum art-appreciation seminar — a museum-piece movie about museum people.
Ty Burr, Boston Globe
The movie should work like a pip. Instead, The Monuments Men is a labored mishmash of tones: Half Hogan’s Post-Doctoral Heroes, half Saving Private Rembrandt, and half Ingres’ 11. That’s three halves, so you can see the problem.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
It’s Clooney’s first bonafide stab at a Spielberg moment: an attempt to render a dour subject in sugary, feel-good terms. Due to the unquestionably profound implications of its characters’ mission, The Monuments Men succeeds at doing that much while creating a distancing effect through its rosy lens. Smothered by its lighthearted approach, The Monuments Men attempts to make a grand statement about the valiance of dying for the sake of art, but fails to create it.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
Something less than monumental, The Monuments Men wears its noble purpose on its sleeve when either greater grit or more irreverence could have spun the same tale to modern audiences with more punch and no loss of import.
Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
The whole film, with its unfashionable techniques (slow fades and dissolves by the dozen) and uber-relaxed, old-school vibe, almost works. Yet Clooney’s attempt to honor unsung real-life heroes while recapturing the ensemble pleasures of some well-remembered Hollywood war pictures, notably The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone, comes off as a modestly accomplished forgery at best.
Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice
The Monuments Men fails in its grand ambitions, but it’s still satisfying in bits and pieces, like a busted statue. Even a tribute made of shining fragments counts for something.
Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush
In between the Balaban/Murray yuks and the race against the mustache-twirling Russian “trophy brigades,” Clooney goes heavy into Good Night, and Good Luck. territory, literally lecturing us. The passion comes through and the movie ends with the Schindler’s List shot and swell of emotion that may just convince you. They don’t make ’em like that anymore!
David Edelstein, New York
I can’t predict if there will be a huge audience for The Monuments Men, but in its way it’s a great piece of escapism. As Iraq explodes (we broke it, we didn’t buy it) and Afghanistan metes out madness and death once again to hubristic occupiers, World War II grows even larger in our hearts. Clooney wants us to agree that liberating the Madonna of Ghent from godless Nazi murderers was maybe our last selfless act as a nation in the theater of war. It’s a pipe dream of decency in a world that has lost its moral compass.