George Clooney’s The Monuments Men is less Schindler’s List and more Kelly’s Heroes. This is a rollicking and almost innocent take on World War II that is safely without extreme violence or tragedy, focusing instead on the gee-whiz camaraderie of soldiers who seem to be on a warm Boy Scout outing than in the midst of an actual war. I suppose in a genre that is often loaded down with brutality, a little bit of genuine Hollywood schmaltz can perhaps be a welcome change of pace, provided you’re not making a piece of garbage like The Book Thief.
The Monuments Men, based on a book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, tells the true story of a team of international art scholars who were enlisted by the American army to search for millions upon millions of stolen art pieces that the Nazis had been deliberately plundering throughout the course of the war. Hitler, it turns out, had a grand scheme to open a great museum in Linz displaying the art the Nazis had outright stolen. It’s up to our brave mostly American boys (along with a Brit and a French guy) to suss out where the art may be, and to protect it.
The team is made up of recognizable archetypes who – while played by notable and very good comic actors like John Goodman, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban – never really transcend their clichés. They move as an amoeba-like unit, bantering lightly, more dramatically functional as a team than as interesting individual characters. Clooney is nothing if not affable, both as a performer and as a director, and man, oh, man is this ever an affable film. It has what so many films strive for and often lack: a general sense of good humor. You know those old WWII movies where soldiers huddle in foxholes, joking with each other to break the tension? Imagine a whole film of that.
Its good humor, sadly, is also what kind of neuters The Monuments Men as a meaningful drama. I admire the hard work the real-life soldiers had to do, and I adore seeing such a talented cast doing what they do best, but the film lacks any sort of intellectual or dramatic oomph. The screenplay rattles on endlessly about “protecting our culture,” but its enthusiasm for art never extends too far past the intellectual level of your public library’s “Read books! They’re cool!” poster. The film never stops to ponder the beauty of the art that the main characters are trying so hard to protect, acting instead as a teenage cheerleader who only did a little light reading beforehand.
This is Clooney’s fifth film as a director, and he seems to have found his niche. All of his films (The Ides of March notwithstanding) are wry, yet vaguely sentimental views of dear American institutions. Whether he’s exploring the origins of pro football, or delving into the wackier corners of television history, Clooney’s movies have been rooting around in nostalgia. His films tend to have a slight intellectual edge to them – no one can accuse him of trying to emulate sentimental masters like Spielberg or Zemeckis – but they are, at the end of the day, very safe movies about halcyon bygone eras. He’s very good at what he does, but I hope Clooney will one day recapture the naughtiness and darkness of his debut feature Confessions of a Dangerous Mind rather than gathering his most talented buddies and makin’ a movie.