An all-star cast, a true-life tale that incorporates a treasure hunt, a race against time, Nazis, and fish-out-of-water tropes as non-soldiers are placed in harm’s way, plus the skills of George Clooney behind the camera; in short, how could this go wrong? With that plot makeup and this cast it would take more effort to tell a boring big screen adventure of the real-life Monuments Men (and women). And yet, the movie found a way. It’s by no means a bad film and its heart is in the right place, but allow me to explain why The Monuments Men sadly fails to live up to its mission.
It’s 1944 and Adolf Hitler doesn’t just have his sights on constructing a permanent empire, he wants all the world’s art treasures as well. The Nazis have been plundering famous works of art, and while the war is coming to a close with the Allied invasion, the fate of these priceless works of art may be in jeopardy. Frank Stokes (Clooney) is tasked with putting together a team to save Europe’s art from the Nazis. He puts together an unconventional group of soldiers (Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville) and search for the hidden loot.
The film looks like it’s going to be a high-concept heist film when it reality it’s a series of vignettes that do not add up to a solid whole. Early on, the Monuments Men team is scattered to the wind, divided into pairs, and so we have four or five competing storylines that don’t develop as desired. To be fair, there are some very good scenes, well executed and written by Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Men Who Stare at Goats) where the conflict is turned up, but the film cannot escape the fact that it feels more like a series of scenes than a cohesive story. Not all of the stories are equal in their interest as well. The Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Damon storyline in France amounts to little else than her stalling for as long as the plot necessitates, then handing over the Very Important Info, then she’s swept aside. The comical asides, notably with Murray and Balaban, feel like scene fillers when there could be stronger material. Once they’re reunited as a group, you wonder why we even needed the time apart. Perhaps it’s an attempt to showcase a wider sampling of stories and perspectives on a complicated war, which is fine, but the characters don’t get the same complicated examination. Despite physical descriptors, these guys are fairly one-note and stay that way, which is a real shame especially when we start losing Monuments Men. The attention is split amongst a bunch of characters lacking proper development. If I felt like we knew these guys on any substantive level, I would feel more at their untimely passing.
Another issue that exacerbates the directionless feeling pervading the film is that it lacks a clear and concise goal. I understand they’re saving and rescuing art, but that’s kept vague until the very end of the film when it becomes more concrete. Until then, the guys are just traveling from place to place, retrieving this piece or that, having comic misadventures, and the movie just feels like it needs a stronger guiding force to corral all these stories, a concise goal that each scene builds onto and where the urgency increases. Late in the film, I got a glimpse of exactly what kind of movie Monuments Men could have been. Once the war is over, the Germans are replaced as antagonists by the Russians (two-for-two with classic American movie villains) and it becomes a race against time to get to the art before the Russians confiscate it. There was always a ticking clock in the film, as Hitler was assembling his art and his command would destroy them in spite of returning them. However, in the very end of the film, the urgency is cranked up, made real, and for once the film emerges with a sense of suspense. I think it would have been a more engaging film experience if the scope of the film were narrowed simply to the material covered in the climax, namely beating the Russians to the art reserves. It practically has a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel with two parties trying to outrace the other to the next precious treasure. How cool would that movie have been?
Another problem is the film’s seesaw tone never really gels together in a satisfying manner. The film awkwardly switches gears from drama to comedy to action without smooth transitions. Clooney wants his film to be a comical buddy comedy but also a poignant remembrance of the lives lost so that we can enjoy our great treasures. Clashing tones take away from the effectiveness, making us feel that Clooney didn’t feel confidant with either direction to make a movie. Alexander Desplat’s overbearing musical score instructs the audience what they should be feeling at any given moment. It vacillates without similar transitions informing you with little transparency that you should feel whimsical, now sad, and now heroic, now go back to whimsical. The entire film, from a story standpoint to a technical standpoint, cried out for a greater sense of unity.
Then there’s the question of whether art is worth people giving up their lives, and this is a valid question that deserves consideration. I was never in doubt what Clooney and company would say to this ethical query, but it’s as if Clooney has little faith in his own audience. He gives three separate speeches about the significance of art and culture and why it is worth dying for. I expected one hefty speech, but three? It’s like Clooney is afraid his audience will waver when blood starts to be shed, and so we need to be reminded by the professor why art is significant to mankind’s value. The point has been made; it doesn’t need to be belabored. The film even ends on recycling this debate, with Clooney putting one final stamp of judgment before the credits roll.
One gets the sense while watching The Monuments Men that it would make a better documentary than a fictional feature film, at least this incarnation of a fictional film. Hearing from the men who lived it will be far more interesting than watching the comic squabbles of Clooney’s crew through Europe. I was instantly reminded of an engrossing documentary from a few years ago called The Rape of Europa, which looked at the subject of saving the arts from Hitler, not specifically the Monuments Men. That documentary was filled with so many different fascinating stories, I remember thinking that any one of them could have made a stellar movie. Monuments Men is further proof that a sharper, more contained focus would be best rather than trying to tell as many war stories involved on the topic. Clooney has proven himself an excellent director and despite his film’s faults it’s still an entertaining film in spurts. I just think we all expected better given the pedigree of talent involved and the can’t-miss quality of the history.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Ever since it charmed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, The Artist has been one hot commodity. The Weinstein Company snapped up the film rights though they have a bit of a hard sell. The movie takes place in the era of silent movies and it also happens to be a silent movie itself. Ignoring Mel Brooks’ unsung efforts, asking paying customers to sit through 100 minutes of silence, albeit accompanied by a musical score, may be a risky financial bet. That’s where the appeal of being an award-winner comes into play. The Artist has been racking up awards since Cannes and has been tagged by many as the favorite to take home a Best Picture Oscar. This celebration of the Hollywood of old is a nostalgic trip through the ages, but I’m doubtful that the film is deserving of the gushing admiration. I think this would have been better had it been one of them new-fangled talkies.
In 1927, the biggest star in Hollywood is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). His latest spy caper is knocking them dead. He’s prancing before a sea of photographers when he bumps into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). He graciously brings her into the act and the two pose for pictures. “Who’s the new girl?” demands the newspaper headlines. Peppy is given her big break as George’s co-star in his spy series. Peppy is a natural and over the course of two years she becomes a bona fide star. Also over those two years Hollywood has undergone a drastic makeover. New “talkies” are all the rage with the public, who now demand to hear their favorite actors speak. George is adamant that talking pictures are only a fad and he plunks his personal fortune to bankroll his directorial debut. The movie is a flop. George is viewed as a has-been; yet Peppy has been keeping a watchful eye on her old friend and waiting for the time to reveal her love for the fallen star.
The Artist is a completely silent movie except for two key sequences; one of them a nightmare where George hears objects make noise. The film is an unabashed love letter to old Hollywood, and writer/director Michel Hazanavicius makes witty use of the storytelling techniques of the silent era. Much relies on editing and reactions for shaping the narrative. The story, therefore, is broken down to its simplest incarnation. Peppy Miller’s star rises, as George’s grows fainter. Still, The Artist has many recognizable pieces for fans of the silent era. George even has a trusted Jack Russell Terrier at his side, a clever pooch with keen mimicking abilities. There’s a cute moment where Peppy slips her arm into George’s coat hanging on a coat rack and pretends to caress her self as him. It’s a small yet slyly tender moment. It’s not a prerequisite to be well versed on silent cinema, though it helps. While a French film (a foreign designation seems superfluous when it’s silent), the movie was shot in Los Angeles and is stocked with English stars like John Goodman (TV’s Treme) as a film director, James Cromwell (Babe) as George’s dutiful butler, Penelope Ann Miller (Flipped) as George’s unhappy wife, Missi Pyle (Big Fish) as a silent film co-star, Beth Grant (Donnie Darko) as a maid, Ken Davitian (Borat) as a pawnbroker, and Malcolm McDowell (Halloween II) as a dismissive old man in a chair (the role he was bon to play). It almost becomes a side game of cameos.
It’s a sprightly, charming, sometimes enchanting little experiment, but in the end an experiment is all the movie turns out to be. The Artist is no great story; in fact it’s pretty much the 80th rendition of A Star is Born. The transition between silent films and talkies is a subject rife with drama, and a lead character who sees his fame and fortune crumble by being left behind in a changing society, well that should be interesting. What’s surprising to me the most about this film is how little you invest with it. I don’t know if it’s the silent gimmick or just the idle characterization, but I found myself never really engaging with the movie, always a step removed. The characters were nice but I neither celebrated their triumphs nor bemoaned their hardships. The entire affair has such a slight feel to it; the movie is a confection, a sweet treat that melts away instantly after viewing. If you strip away all the old Hollywood nostalgia, there is very little substance here. Praise Hazanavicius for his dedication to silent filmmaking techniques, but let’s be reasonable here because The Artist is a pleasant experiment but nothing more. The characters and story do not bear scrutiny. This story would have been more interesting had the movie been a traditional talky. Alas, we are limited to a handful of title cards with single lines of dialogue and extreme amounts of pantomiming. If you took away the central gimmick, would anyone be interested in this movie? I wanted to be swept away by The Artist after reading all the fawning accolades, but I wasn’t. The commitment of the artists on screen is commendable but the finished product is little more than an amusing trifle of a movie.
Dujardin (OSS: Lost in Rio) and Bejo (Modern Love) look like they stepped off the screen from an old Hollywood movie, al la Purple Rose of Cairo. Dujardin is a suave presence with great comedic physicality at his disposal. There’s a poignant moment where George, broken down and washed up, looks into a tuxedo store window, seeing his reflection appear above the neck of the tuxedo. He gingerly smiles, wistful of times gone by, and in that sad, face crinkling little moment, Dujardin reveals more about the man behind the flashbulbs than the script ever will. Even without a word spoken, you can tell that Dujardin and Bejo have great chemistry. Bejo, the wife of the director by the way, matches Dujardin note for note in terms of star wattage. She’s got a terrific smile and one of those classic faces for an Age When They Had Faces. It’s a shame that the characters don’t have more interaction.
The Artist is a fine film but ultimately disappointing given the hype. The saddest part about my reaction to The Artist is how little I find myself having to say about this much-ballyhooed silent film. It’s an exercise in nostalgic back-patting, but if you strip away the silent movie gimmick I feel like there’s so little at heart here. I walked away liking the movie, being charmed by the actors but feeling unengaged and mildly indifferent. The threadbare story is too familiar, the characterization is slight, and the movie ultimately becomes light, airy, and insubstantial. The novelty eventually does wear off and you may find yourself adding a mental commentary to the film to fill in the blanks. You’d have to be a Scrooge to resist the film’s whimsy and the talents of the charismatic performers, but I’m scratching my head at the adulation give to The Artist. In a year heavy with reminiscence, The Artist overdoses on feel-good Hollywood nostalgia, and in a down year at the movies, perhaps that’s enough when it comes time for awards.
Nate’s Grade: B