Of all the mysteries of Monuments Men, the most baffling is how George Clooney (director/co-writer/star) managed to make Bill Murray boring. Murray’s got plenty in the bank. He can afford to shoot a boring part while hanging out in Europe with Clooney. Given the chance, I’d do the same. But you still feel a sense of waste when a role attempts to hide Murray’s hard-coded sense of irony. We substitute a false Murray in place of something nourishing, like Velveeta for cheese.
If you want to see this movie for the cast, go for it. It’s a pleasant enough way to spend a couple hours, in the company of familiar, compelling actors. If you’re expecting to see these actors playing characters, don’t see it. If you’re thinking that this might be Oceans WWII with priceless, famous works of art, don’t see it. If you’re expecting to see a story that makes clear progress from point A to point B, don’t go see it. If you like watching a movie continually surprise itself with how noble it thinks it is, this is a must see.
Clooney based his movie on The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel, but he’s changed all the character’s names, and seems to have taken pretty extensive license across the board. The basic premise—that Hitler stole artwork from all across Europe, and President Roosevelt dispatched an elite task-force of museum curators and art-historians to recover and protect ART— that premise is true. What’s incredible isn’t that Clooney has improvised over the historical truth, but that the movie’s aimless structure didn’t result from an attempt to hit the historical beats while fulfilling the structural needs of an entertaining movie. Real life doesn’t always fall into neat three act structures. But Monuments manages to mutilate both history and conventional storytelling. But the movie gives itself a break here because it has a POINT.
The movie wants to make the point that works of art are worth sacrificing human lives to protect. To that end it takes a sort of “we’ll go first” approach, by sacrificing absolutely everything—plot, character, our nation’s precious Bill Murray resources—to drive this dubious point home. (Harold Ramis’ recent death should be a reminder that a day is coming when Murray scarcity will spike, and then that spike will hold.) The story doesn’t put this point through the wringer, because that would be hard on the point. Points need protection and nourishment. They shouldn’t go out on the playground with the other kids because they might get hurt. The men who die for art choose their fate. They’re not drafted or forced into their service. They make a choice, which makes it hard to hold their annihilation against Clooney’s Frank Stokes. But seriously? Is any work of art worth dying for? Wouldn’t giving one’s life for a lifeless, man-made object be the definition of idolatry? Doesn’t that seem worthless?
The movie looks decent as Clooney’s movies generally do. Good Night and Good Luck, in black and white, has a round, smooth, pleasant quality. The performances in and of themselves are fine. Everyone’s competent. The movie is, perhaps, unintentionally feminist. Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone gets a character with both scene-to-scene consistency and some slight development. Bob Balaban’s Preston Savitz fares the worst. He starts off the movie afflicted with a little man complex, expresses a bloodthirsty desire to “kill someone” in war, and then suddenly goes out of his way to make a grand sentimental gesture for Murray’s character, Richard Campbell. Clooney’s problem isn’t so much directing moment to moment performances in scenes. It’s connecting them over the course of a movie. These characters are only distinct from each other because Matt Damon isn’t George Clooney.
Worst of all, the movie sanitizes Murray. Monuments Men is so bent on its own nobility that a truly comic character moment might undermine these characters’ statuses as graven objects themselves. In full possession of his comic persona, Murray couldn’t fail to humanize Richard Campbell. And that would have push him out right out of the movie’s limited orbit.