Even as a young man, George Clooney was a throwback. He’s one of those guys who didn’t get famous until he hit middle age for a reason. Your dad’s movie star, he’s a dapper, classy gentleman who seems to have a saner handle on celebrity than most. It’s also incredibly annoying that Clooney is only getting more handsome and becoming a better actor as he gets older.

His directorial work is far more curious, but not in a good way. Wedded inextricably to bygone traditions, Clooney burst out of the gate with the barely seen, phantasmagoric adaptation of The Gong Show host Chuck Barris’ phony autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The psychosexual post-modern perversions of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay were complemented by the old-school 1960s live-TV gimmicks Clooney employed behind the camera, and it’s still one of the looniest debuts I have ever seen.

But Confessions was a massive flop, and since then Clooney has retreated further and further into the past with significantly starchier source material. Good Night, and Good Luck was smart but a bit stodgy. Leatherheads and The Ides of March were just plain stodgy. This brings us to The Monuments Men, a seemingly can’t-miss movie with a killer cast that was unceremoniously bumped from last year’s Oscar season to the doldrums of February at the last minute. But if they were ever really serious about this thing winning Academy Awards, they would have pushed it back to 1964.

Harkening back to so many WWII men-on-a-mission movies that Lee Marvin and John Sturges should probably get screen credits just on general principle, The Monuments Men finds Clooney leading a band of aging misfits in the waning days of World War II, attempting to rescue priceless works of art before Hitler’s final orders torch them all.

Chasing after statues and paintings might seem like a foolish errand in light of the Holocaust, so Clooney tackles that question head-on. Well actually, he just stands around giving speeches about how important this mission is for world culture while the patriotic music blares and a game cast nods in awed agreement. Clooney does this more than once. In fact, he does it so many times the film seems to have developed an inferiority complex about its own purpose before it has even started.

What a cast, though! Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and Bill Murray are all rounded up briefly for a quick tease of camaraderie and then sent on their separate ways to different parts of the globe chasing disconnected subplots that never come together. It’s like Clooney didn’t understand the appeal of his own Danny Ocean capers.

In one country you’ve got stuffy Damon being wowed by Cate Blanchett, and somewhere else Goodman is pretending to tolerate Dujardin. Clooney drives the Jeep and makes even more noble pronouncements, while way off in the very far corner of the movie Murray and Balaban are on their own in a bizarre buddy comedy I would much rather be watching.

The screenplay, penned by Clooney and his regular writing partner Grant Heslov, is a mishmash of ill-fitting parts, and the tone veers all over the place. The Monuments Men is a breezy lark until it isn’t anymore, but then it is again. A syrupy montage set to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” bumps uncomfortably against even more reminders of the Holocaust. All these characters spend an awful lot of time trumpeting their brotherhood and sacrificing themselves for one another, which feels really weird considering how most of them have barely shared more than a few minutes together on screen.

Despite running more than two hours, the film feels like it’s missing at least 40 minutes, with years passed over by Clooney’s stopgap afterthought of a narration. The only real connective tissue is Alexandre Desplat’s rousing retro score, which like all great World War II movie music contains a fair amount of whistling.

This is certainly a fascinating footnote to history, but, as presented by Clooney and Heslov, the story has no locomotive. Everybody kind of just stumbles upon hidden treasures in their own little disjointed story arcs, and then they all meet up later with a shrug. Oh, by the way, the war ended.

Clooney’s lugubrious direction mimics the worst of those star-studded early-1960s epics, with lots of long dissolves and chunky inertia. The Monuments Men is indeed a throwback, but in this case that’s not a compliment.


The Monuments Men

Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban. Based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. Screenplay by Grant Heslov and George Clooney. Directed by George Clooney.

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