Wink Wink Nudge Nudge Wank Puke
While George Clooney the actor is something of a known quantity these days — maybe not the absolute best, but always really good, like the McDonald’s french fries of actors — Clooney the director is more like a deserted, mom-and-pop taco joint. Romantic, quaint, and possibly delicious, but just as likely to give you crippling diarrhea. I’m sad to report, especially with this cast, that Clooney the director is back in Leatherheads form in The Monuments Men, a World War II drama that seems to exist solely so that Clooney can deliver schmaudlin voiceovers. “Schmaudlin” is a combination of schmaltzy and maudlin, by the way, and I invented it specifically for this movie.
There’s a fine line between “classic Hollywood” and “nauseatingly hokey” and Clooney has managed to sneak deep into the latter’s territory with this one. It tries to paper over its lack of plot detail with hammy jokes and earnest voiceovers set to tinkly piano music, but the story is so sloppily it told comes off like your boozy uncle giving a teary speech about you’re not sure what. Starring a murderer’s row of Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchettt, and Downton Abbey‘s Hugh Bonneville, the cast has enough Oscar and Emmy statues between them that they could use them as bowling pins (with greased up starlets as balls, knowing Clooney, that old dog). But while Monuments Men must’ve had a hell of a wrap party, a movie never breaks out. It’s a movie that wants to wink and nudge before it’s even started telling the joke.
Clooney plays some kind of art historian tasked with leading a wacky band of Ocean’s 11 art experts into occupied territory, to take back stolen art from the Nazis and to keep priceless artifacts from being destroyed during the war. Monuments Men focuses so much on how wacky the band is, there’s hardly time to explain the actual mission. It’s so heavy on winks and aw shucks moments that the story could be about anything.
It seems that this year has seen a rash of movies that assume the audience isn’t interested in the details of the plot. The Counselor, for instance, had some kind of crazy drug deal involving a sewage truck filled with cocaine and different starter cables as macguffin, which might’ve been interesting if it hadn’t been glossed over in favor of more overwrought, nihilistic soliloquoys. In Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio starts to explain Jordan Belfort’s pump-and-dump schemes before cutting himself off, saying, “But… you don’t care about this part.”
You know what? I actually do. Wolf of Wall Street gets away with it and The Counselor somewhat less so, but generally speaking, I’d like to know the details of the protagonists’ plans in the movies that I’m watching. That’s the whole appeal of a heist movie, actually. The hijinks and the camaraderie are just the icing. Icing without cake is just cloying and pointless, like Monuments Men.
In Monuments Men, seven guys are supposed to protect the world’s priceless art in the midst of its greatest war. How are they going to do that? We never really find out, but we do get the old Private Pyle shot of Bill Murray struggling to climb an obstacle and Bob Balaban holding his gun in humorous ways. Instead of this awesomely complex story about trying to protect art from the Americans, who might accidentally bomb it; the Nazis, who might burn it or steal it; and from Russians who will also steal it, we get “haha, look at the old guys try to soldier!”
In one scene, the Nazis leave behind a cache of carefully preserved, meticulously packed art. “It’s a good thing they have more respect for art than they do people,” Clooney or someone says. Then in the next scene, the Nazis torch priceless Picassos with a flame thrower, apparently just to be dicks. How do we explain this dichotomy? If you’re Monuments Men, you don’t, you just do a gun finger at the camera, and maybe muss the audience’s hair and ask, “You doin’ okay there, pardner?” Charm is nice, but it isn’t a complete substitute for substance.
Clooney the director leaves out details about where his characters are and what exactly they’re supposed to be doing, while giving Clooney the actor at least three speeches about Why Art Is Worth Dying For, all set to tinkling, earnest piano music. In fact, Monuments Men might have the most obnoxious, overbearing score I’ve heard since Liar Liar, with the difference being that I actually liked Liar Liar. Every time Clooney has to give a big speech about Men Who Died For Art, it sounds like Harry Connick Jr. is warming up for a Christmas album in the background.
Basically, Monuments Men is a movie that wants to be dramatic and full of heartfelt moments where we earnestly mourn men who died while trying to protect art, while the group of artists who actually made the movie just look like they’re playing costume party grabass the entire time.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.