Full disclosure – I came in late, but I saw enough of this obvious, treacly, hackneyed, preachy pile of cornpone to feel safe that I didn’t miss the good part. Hitler is destroying all of Europe’s art. The Monuments Men, each and every one a gentle soul borne of devotion to those things that ennoble us, arrive in Europe to stop him. In the process, they say things like: “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and that’s exactly what we are fighting for” and “Who would make sure that the statue of David is still standing or the Mona Lisa is still smiling? Who will protect her?”
It’s not hard to figure what director and co-writer George Clooney was aiming for, an inspiring, old-fashioned period piece that trumpets the virtues of humanity in a world mired in barbarism, updated to include a little wit. Call it “Band of Oceans 14.”
Clooney fails utterly. Every character is stock, and the film feels untethered, veering wildly from the cornily comic to the embarrassingly sentimental (the deaths of Downton Abbey master Hugh Bonneville and Jean Judarin from The Artist are laughably operatic). Bill Murray and Bob Balaban go for some night air, meet a scared German boy-soldier and share a cigarette with him. Makes you think, right? Then, Matt Damon, a member of the mission to save the art, steps on a land mine, prompting Clooney to quip, “Why d’you do something like that?” And then Elliot Gould and Brad Pitt show up and they all have a drink at The Bellagio.
Clooney took a very interesting story and made it a bunch of hooey. Turns out Hitler didn’t order the destruction of art. Now, is Hitler the kind of historical character you actually need to lie about to make him look worse? I submit he is not. But this manifest picture isn’t taking any chances.