On paper, The Monuments Men sounded unstoppable: A killer ensemble cast (including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett) backing up co-writer/star George Clooney’s dramatization of how a crew of art historians, artists, and architects saved scores of stolen art in the last days of WWII, a kind of Dirty Dozen by way of Ocean’s 11. This very site put it on our “most anticipated movies of the year” list — not once, but twice. That repeat was due to the film’s delay, which moved it from the primo Oscar-season date of December 2013 into the far less prestigious February slot it currently holds; the official reason for the bump was incomplete special effects, but the Hollywood whispers had it that Clooney was having a hard time nailing the tone. Having seen the movie, it seems there may have been something to those rumors, and the apparent solution was to slap on a musical score that tells the viewer exactly how to feel at every possible moment. If you’ve ever doubted how thoroughly a poor score can wreck an otherwise perfectly acceptable motion picture, get thee to Monuments Men.
The music is by Alexandre Desplat, and when that information was revealed at the end of the film (it’s one of those movies that saves all the credits, except the title, for the end), this viewer was stunned. After two hours of wondering what hack was responsible for this obtrusive, garbage music, I certainly wasn’t expecting to see this six-time Oscar nominee’s name; his credits include the gripping music for Zero Dark Thirty and Argo (which Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Henslov produced), as well as The Tree of Life, Benjamin Button, and Wes Anderson’s last three films.
But his work in Monuments Men is dreadful — and, worse, all but nonstop. Desplat and his 110-piece orchestra lumber in to scene after scene like a stray elephant, for the sole purpose of telegraphing the most obvious emotional response. When Clooney’s Frank Stokes makes a big speech about the importance of art and what they’re doing (as he does so often), it is underscored by plinky piano and heart-tugging strings, pushing, insisting that this is all stirring and emotional. But when the movie transitions into comic scenes, Clooney and Desplat apparently don’t think we’re capable of making the transition with them, so the lighter moments are smothered in music so mirthful and cutesy, it’s a little surprising they don’t trot out slide whistles and kazoos.
What’s going on here? Desplat is no schnook, and it seems safe to assume that he delivered exactly the score Clooney asked for. The corniness of the music has to be intentional, or at least ironic, right? But this is the problem with intellectualizing an element that provokes a purely emotional response: you can argue what you were trying to do, but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And this music, in scene after scene, loudly and distractingly, does not work. I’m sure we will hear that Desplat was attempting to replicate the big, bombastic music of the period, but it doesn’t play that way; it’s so overbearing and pushy, it sounds less like the period and more like an ‘80s miniseries set in the period.
But why have you spent three paragraphs harping on the music, Bailey, you might ask, not unreasonably. And here’s why: because without it, Clooney might’ve had a pretty good little movie here. Sure, it has its problems: the setup is weirdly brisk (and includes an accidentally hilarious scene where Clooney’s art historian briefs the President of the United States on where they’re at in the war effort, because that’s the proper orientation of that conversation), Clooney’s exclusion of women from the story is troubling, and the (sometimes literal) flag-waving of the film seems a naked ploy to court the History-Channel-Dad demographic (and maybe even to settle potential Republican moviegoers, for whom Clooney is the embodiment of that dreaded species, the “Hollywood Liberal”). And the script’s episodic structure gives us some good sequences, but never manages to work up much in the way of momentum.
Yet there is much here to recommend. Murray and Balaban make an entertaining two-act, Goodman is as effortlessly good as ever (there’s a close-up on his face at a memorial service that is more eloquent than any of Clooney’s big speeches), Clooney is gruff and dashing (with a Clark Gable mustache, even), and Damon gets a good running gag and some well-played scenes with Cate Blanchett. And there are two flat-out terrific sequences: a tense, funny, sharp encounter between Balaban, Murray, and a Nazi art thief whose home they’ve accidentally ended up in, and Clooney’s interrogation of a chilling war criminal.
Significantly, both are played with no music whatsoever. In those scenes, we don’t have to be told how to react; viewers are trusted to feel and respond on their own. Look, the filmmaking process requires such complicated choreography of rapidly moving parts that it’s kind of a miracle a great movie ever gets made, so it’s no crime against cinema that this element of Clooney’s ambitious effort got away from him. But it does real damage to an otherwise pretty-good picture: it tips borderline sequences into poor ones, and makes already bad scenes exponentially worse. And in doing so, it serves as a harsh reminder that “old fashioned” isn’t always a compliment.
The Monuments Men opens tomorrow in wide release.