Let’s pretend for a moment that George Clooney’s directing career were his real career. Let’s ignore his stardom and look at what he’s done as a filmmaker. In 2002, Clooney exploded onto the scene with a surprisingly assured and visually audacious debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (USA/Germany/Canada). Having a Charlie Kaufman screenplay based on one of the most interesting “autobiographies” of all time and an extraordinary lead actor* definitely made it easier for him, but the death scene on the swimming pool is one of the most striking scenes I can ever remember seeing in a film, and the film, while something of a narrative mess, definitely showcases a director with a real eye.
He has since followed a schedule, releasing a new film every three years. In 2005, he released an excellent film that retained the visual power of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind while also showcasing an admirable ability to craft a tightly-focused narrative in Good Night, and Good Luck. (USA/France/UK/Japan). At that point, with an Oscar nomination in his back pocket, Clooney looked like a director to watch. Then, he released a forgettable screwball comedy about the early days of professional football that really got little traction. Then, disastrously, he returned to the political realm he had used so well for Good Night, and Good Luck. for his 2011 film The Ides of March (USA). While his visual craftsmanship and casting ability remained apparent, the film was one of the few I can ever remember seeing that was quite simply remarkably stupid. It was a vapid, shallow point (The entire point of the film is a line spoken by its lead character: “You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t fuck the interns! They get you for that!” And, no, it did not come out in 1997.) made artlessly in a film that seemed naively shocked at any impropriety by modern politicians.
So, with that career in mind, we see that he has gone behind the camera again for a film whose trailer seems to suggest that the story has about six acts and that the main reason to see the film is its cast that would have qualified best for “star-studded” status twenty years earlier. The film tells the rather odd-sounding story of a military unit in World War II charged with saving pieces of art from destruction at Hitler’s hands, but there’s an interesting moment in the trailer when Clooney says that, as silly as their mission may sound, “this is what we’re fighting to protect—a way of life.” The film then looks like it has the potential to be an interesting exploration of the importance of art to a society, a subject that is going to be near and dear to the heart of any filmmaker, especially one as politically aware as Clooney. So, we have a filmmaker with a great eye seemingly working on a film with a clear point that’s right in his wheelhouse. He’s misfired a couple of times in a row, but after showing so much promise, he has to knock this one out of the park, right?
Well, there is no joy in Mudville. Mighty Clooney has struck out.
The film really has no idea what its point is, interjecting lectures about the value of art while it tells its story of this ragtag group of semi-bumblers working to find the art but never really connecting the two. It’s too busy telling the story of what happened with this group of men to continue making its point, which makes the entire point of the film feel like a lecture added onto the film after completion.
And even the story that the film tells is a mess, jumping around among the lead characters with no clear aims as they take actions whose significance is only made clear by heavy-handed after-the-fact discussion. It feels like a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive story, which is a major problem for a film that has already jettisoned its real point in order to tell a story. Further, Clooney depends entirely on the star power of his actors to carry interest in these characters, who are otherwise never defined. Using an all-star cast is a way to force the audience to invest interest in ill-defined or dull characters, but Clooney does it using a couple of has-been stars (Bill Murray and John Goodman), a few recognizable faces who are nonetheless well short of being stars (Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, and Bob Balaban), and two legitimate stars (Clooney and Matt Damon, both of whom one could argue are also has-beens, since they were more popular 10-20 years ago than they are today) and isn’t using this technique because of a focus on story or point over characters but rather just to make up for his own shortcomings in drawing them.
Tone is also a major problem within the film, as it has no idea whether it’s a fun romp, something deadly serious, or somewhere in between. It is constantly veering between fun, silly vignettes and then the type of death and destruction that typically populates war movies. It doesn’t know which is its focus, and it certainly isn’t making any points by juxtaposing the extremes.
With this cast, one would expect that the acting would be a silver lining in this film even with its other problems. However, no one is given enough to do to be particularly impressive and a couple of cast members are even problematic. Bill Murray, who I still believe should have an Oscar on his mantle, seems completely unsure who his character is and bounces illogically between his typical laconicism, a knowing goofiness, and an odd cynicism. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett seems to be playing some sort of parody of a French woman in a film from 1940 rather than any kind of real character, somehow managing the incredible trick of coming across as both wooden and over the top at the same time.
Working again with his Ides of March cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Clooney’s eye doesn’t really fail him here, but the film also lacks the flare that he displayed in the past. It’s a perfectly competent film that does some dynamic lighting and definitely doesn’t do anything wrong, but it plays it safe in a way that Clooney has been very good about avoiding in the past. It looks exactly how you expect it to look from the poster, which is a sign of competence, but also a sign that the film is less interesting than it could have been.
Alexandre Desplat’s score also deserves a note, as it was quite hideous but also something of a victim of the film’s tonal problems. Desplat essentially scored the film as an out-and-out comedy, but since Clooney didn’t make that, the score often feels out of place. It often sounds like some sort of parody of the score to The Great Escape (John Sturges, USA 1963) for a film that has nothing in common with that earlier masterpiece.
The Monuments Men is really nothing short of a disaster. It’s a film that has no idea what it wants to be and so succeeds in being nothing. It is a failure on nearly every level and even its successes are only partial successes.
*Sam Rockwell is extraordinary. How the guy has managed to be relatively obscure with that talent is a question that keeps me awake at night.