For me, the key to understanding whether a film is working or not is due to the music. Since the days of silent cinema, when a pianist would play along inside the auditorium to the images shown on screen, to the modern, post-Tarantino use of pop music in films in the past couple of decades, music has been as vital as the images on screen in terms of concluding whether the film has been a success. Why am I mentioning this? Because Alexandre Desplat’s score for The Monuments Men (ironically one of the film’s redeeming features) summarises the tonal inconsistency of the finished film in a far better way than I could. The film is based on the allied attempts to retrieve stolen art from Germany in the dying years of the Second World War, yet to my eyes this topic eventually became irrelevant to the point that including a plot synopsis here seemed like a waste of time.
There are two different films trapped inside The Monuments Men; firstly, a Frank Capra channelling comedy, where the jokes aren’t funny due to being old-fashioned, yet remain charming due to how outdated they are (case in point, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban interrogating a German whose only words of English are “John Wayne”). This is soundtracked by a light bouncy score, and eventually leads to an abundance of whistling straight out of Stalag 17. The second film is an Oscar Baiting war epic about whether or not fine art should cost lives – this leads to a serious, John Williams style score that is simultaneously patronising and in sharp contrast with the previous sonic element. For example, a comic sequence where Matt Damon steps on a landmine turns into an opportunity for him to give an emotional speech, presumably intended as an Oscar clip in an alternate reality where this was a contender.
Another significant problem is how uninteresting every character on screen is; the opening fifteen minutes suggest a rollicking caper movie, which never materialises as the characters all split up on arrival in Normandy. This leads to four different narrative threads occurring at once, with no significant amount of time spent with any of the characters. It’s a rare case where I wished the film was longer so I could get to know them- instead, Desplat’s score does the emoting so the audience doesn’t even have to bother getting invested in them. A noted example is that there is no mention of Bill Murray’s estranged family, until some stirring strings and a clip of him crying in the shower hearing them sing Christmas songs on the radio is used so as to both reference them and not explore the topic further. Emotional manipulation is only successful if you care about (or are even aware of the existence of) the characters involved in the first place.
Clooney has said that his directorial efforts are his opportunity to “make the kind of films that don’t get made anymore”, be they 70’s style political thrillers (The Ides of March) or screwball sports comedies (the underrated Leatherheads). The problem here is that he doesn’t know what kind of film he wants to make, and still assumes the audience will lap it up because of the weighty subject matter. They shouldn’t: it’s a monumental failure.