‘Monuments Men’ Review: When Screwball Comedy Goes Wrong

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.