No, as they used to tell Charlie the Tuna in the great ancient TV ads. They don’t want tuna with good taste; they want tuna that tastes good.
You have to admire George Clooney’s taste all through “The Monuments Men.” Everything that, no doubt, is likable, tasteful, noble and amiable about Clooney as a human being bursts out of his new movie “The Monuments Men,” opening Friday. And almost all of it contributes to the hopeless blandness and mediocrity of the film.
It’s certainly watchable and minimally entertaining. The cast and the fascinating plot saw to that. Clooney directs and stars in the movie as the leader of a band of American soldiers at the end of World War II charged with rescuing some of Europe’s greatest treasures – a millennium of art and architecture that is part of the essence of Western Civilization – from the thievery and wholesale depredations of the Nazis.
The movie is based on Robert M. Edsel’s book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” (A new exhibition in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery celebrates a former director and two curators who served as Monuments Men, and a piece of art, by Edgar Degas, that was recovered from the Nazis and later donated to the museum.)
The movie’s setup makes it the movie studios’ somewhat boring grandson of one of the great archetypal American movies – Robert Aldrich’s “The Dirty Dozen” in which Lee Marvin, with his whiskey-scalded basso, leads an outrageously cast dozen of Hollywood actors (John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas) and non-actors (Jim Brown, Trini Lopez) through a World War II suicide mission against Nazis who are the only people in Europe more antisocial than the American soldiers. It’s one of the classic American action movies and even though there are only seven Monuments Men in Clooney’s movie, it is the working template of Clooney’s.
Unlike that truly great and wild cinematic vulgarian Aldrich (“Kiss Me Deadly,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”), Clooney was too suave and tasteful and considerate to do all of the things he could have done as scriptwriter, director and producer to make this movie better. For instance:
1) It should have been funnier. Getting the mix of humor and seriousness was, reportedly, a major thing delaying its opening in December as originally planned. Perhaps so, but another may have been how very wan it would have looked against the superb movies opening in late November and December. The movie needed much more of the kind of towel-snapping, comradely joshing that American movies have been showing us from soldiers at war for many decades now. Yes, those Monuments Men were scholarly conscripts in it to save civilization. They were, by no means, natural soldiers but that does not mean they had no comradely humor. Not in a movie it doesn’t. There’s some but not nearly enough.
2) They should have been more visibly passionate in their cause – angrier, sadder, more in awe of the art they rescued. It’s not enough to see Nazi flamethrowers torching a large pile of paintings we can’t identify and then, in the next scene, see one of the Monuments Men (Bob Balaban) retrieving the scorched frame of one incinerated painting which tells us it was painted by Picasso. Some rage was necessary from someone. Or truly deep sorrow. But maybe Clooney, in this German-American production, thought it was undiplomatic to pile on in a movie that also shows us several barrels of saved gold teeth extracted from those in the camps.
The cast, to a man (and one woman, Cate Blanchett), is all too cool for school, which is how we’d all be in the highest reaches of Clooneyland, but is probably not best for a bunch of guys whose mission is rescuing and returning civilization from those who would steal and destroy it. (The Nazis anti-modernism made them the most powerful art critics who ever lived. Their antipathy to modern art led them, no doubt, into destruction we should have been told more about in the film.)
3) The movie has one of the dippiest musical scores I’ve ever encountered – an illustration under glass of how important a good score can be to a film. It’s composer was Alexandre Desplat (“The King’s Speech,” “Philomena,” “Argo”) but the jaunty, bouncy “this is comic” tone of the music is the single most trivializing element in the entire thing.
You can’t ask the most obvious question the film can’t avoid – is art worth the expenditure of human lives – while having a musical score whose empty bounce and syrup miniaturizes every word of dialogue and every action it touches. I don’t care how respected Desplat is, Clooney should have replaced him with someone else.
But no. Every one of Clooney’s virtues as a human being – and loyalty has long been fabled to be high among them – contributed to the lessening of a hugely promising film.
For the record, Clooney plays their leader looking for caches of great art in Germany. Matt Damon plays the guy in France trying to get the secrets that Blanchett knows. Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin are squad members with their own ill-defined specialties.
One final thing for Western New York audiences: there’s a celebrity cameo in a very special role that ends the otherwise bland film beautifully. I can’t tell you who it is, but for those who live in Western New York, it’s unusually satisfying.
It’s hard not to like and admire Clooney. A nastier, tougher guy might have made a much tougher, smarter, wittier and better movie of a truly great movie subject.
The monuments men
2½ stars (Out of four)
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Director: George Clooney
Running time: 110 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for war violence, some language and historical smoking.
The Lowdown: A commissioned group of scholar soldiers rescues Europe’s great art from the thievery and destruction of the Nazis.