Review: George Clooney’s ‘Monuments Men’ is unfocused and too soft

George Clooney is now five films into his career as a director, which gives us enough room to try to discern a voice or a thematic intent or a unifying vision for the films he’s made, and yet, when I look at those five films, what ultimately emerges is a portrait of a somewhat invisible man.

I think “Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind” is a very stylish film, and he navigated a fairly tricky piece of writing there. I understand why so many directors were drawn to Charlie Kaufman’s script, and I understand why so many directors ultimately chose not to direct that same script. Clooney has a strong eye for casting, and he also helped figure out how to sell that reality, which wasn’t easy at all. I think he also made very strong choices with “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a fairly dry piece of writing about a decidedly non-sexy subject. While “Leatherheads” doesn’t really work, I can see exactly what sort of screwball tone he’s trying to pull off, and I understand the appeal of it. And while I think “The Ides Of March” tries to inflate a fairly simple idea into something more significant, it’s obvious that he’s a smart guy who wants pop entertainment to grapple with grown-up subjects.

There is something lovely and compelling about the notion of a “man-on-a-mission” movie about the guys tasked with protecting and rescuing art during WWII. It’s one of those side stories that illuminates one of the corners of modern warfare that people don’t really think about, and I’ll admit… the idea that you’d have to specifically send people to protect art baffles me. Then again, I would never think of destroying a culture’s art as a way of punishing that culture. That strikes me as a truly psychopathic way to behave, but that’s war for you… things that would seem impossible at any other time become a matter of policy.

The script is the biggest issue this time, and the adaptation by Clooney and Grant Heslov simply doesn’t figure out how to construct a movie narrative from the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. There’s a softness to the entire thing that is problematic. The film sort of lurches to life at the beginning, and then we’re treated to one disjointed episode after another. You’ve got a great ensemble here, with Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban all playing key roles, but they’re introduced in ways that rely more on our feelings about the actors than ways that establish strong film characters.

Obviously, the big ticking clock of the film is the end of the war. Once that happens, the art that Germany stole and that Russia wants is all going to vanish down rabbit holes that America may never uncover. There’s no urgency to the film, though. They try to attach particular significance to a few key pieces so we know that the hunt isn’t over until those pieces turn up, but this entire film unfolds at a stroll. Matt Damon heads to Paris, away from the rest of the group, so he can spend most of the movie having lunch with Cate Blanchett and trying to talk some records out of her, and it is all presented as sort of genial and low-key and utterly unimportant.

Even within individual scenes, I’m not sure what the point of much of the movie is. There’s an incident with Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and a German kid with a gun that goes absolutely nowhere and doesn’t really impart anything about the characters, and that scene feels to me like the entire movie in a nutshell. Do I like watching Bill Murray and Bob Balaban interact? Sure. Does it feel compelling at all? Nope. More than that, when scenes end in this film, I’m often not sure what the point of the scene was.

It’s a handsomely made film, with sharp location photography by Phedon Papamichael and a lovely score by Alexandre Desplat, but the score points up another problem with the film. Listening to that score and looking at the cast, I guess part of me expects something that has the same breezy comic charms of an “Ocean’s 11” movie, and I think there’s something interesting about taking this particular chapter of WWII and playing some of the dark laughs inherent. This film isn’t a comedy, though, and when we get to scenes like the guys going through a giant container full of gold fillings taken from Jews, you’d expect those scenes to land with an emotional punch. But again… nope. The drama is just as unformed as the comedy, and so the result is a film that seems like it’s not funny, it’s not serious, it’s not urgent, and it’s not thematically focused.

“Monuments Men” is not, strictly speaking, a bad movie. It’s not upsetting, and there’s nothing about it that I rejected outright. But it feels like a souffle that fell in the oven, something that never came together, and that simply can’t deliver on the premise. You’d do much better just tracking down John Frankenheimer’s “The Train,” screening it as a double-feature with Soderberg’s “Ocean’s 11,” and then calling it a night.

“The Monuments Men” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.