Is ‘Monuments Men’ Too Much a Mix of Art and Commerce?

Monuments Men

Clooney's latest movie is a mashup of comedy caper and serious message film, belying the filmmaker's intention to keep the two separate in his career

MEMO: TO GEORGE CLOONEY

Your Clooney movie machine is purring along smoothly, George, with “Gravity,” which you co-produced, poised to reap further largesse from the Oscars. You will shortly start “Tomorrowland,” a sci-fi megapic from director Brad Bird. And “Monuments Men” has opened to respectable numbers in the U.S., and aspires to stronger ones overseas.

But before we gloss over that last movie. … As a filmmaker who has feasted off worshipful reviews for most of your career, George, the critical whiplash that greeted “Monuments Men” surely took you by surprise. I hope so anyway, because this might be a good moment for you to reassess a key aspect of your filmmaking strategy.

The WWII-set film, which you wrote, directed and starred in, offers a compelling story, a noble message and an inspired cast. Trouble is, it’s a dark war movie haphazardly married to an unwieldy comedy caper. It’s as though you started on a remake of John Frankenheimer’s “The Train” and then decided to mix in some scenes from “Ocean’s Eleven.”

You once explained to me, George, that you intended to keep the two sectors of your film career completely separate — your “Ocean’s Eleven” works of commerce would faithfully support your “Good Night, and Good Luck” art pictures. It sounded like a deft business plan — but in “Monuments Men” you let the two sectors crash into each other.

The movie asks a serious question: Is saving a great objet d’art worth the cost of a human life? But it ducks another question: Should a film on a serious theme be delivered within a caper movie?

In the blizzard of pre-release publicity, your co-producer, Grant Heslov, pointed out that some films you’ve starred in seemed “rudderless” in their direction, adding, “George, by contrast, has a deft hand and very strong point of view.”

Well, not this time.

While you and Heslov did extensive research on Nazi art thefts, I wish you’d also taken the time to revisit some classic films — which brings us back to “The Train.” That film, which starred Jeanne Moreau and Burt Lancaster, also dealt with Nazi art theft, but it was framed within a tough suspense film. There were no odd little bits of business with Bill Murray or Bob Balaban, and no Matt Damon jokes about bad French accents.

Which brings us to another question, George: Why are you (and Heslov) insistent on writing your own scripts? There’s a new book out about Paddy Chayefsky, titled “Mad as Hell: The Making of Network.” Authored by Dave Itzkoff, it reminds us of that era when the profession of screenwriting was revered, and some top writers could actually get a movie made.

In “Network,” Chayefsky warned against “comicalizing” serious information, adding, “To make a gag out of the news is disreputable and destructive.” Of course, Chayefsky brought to films like “Hospital” and “Network” both anger and irony — elements that go missing from “Monuments Men.”

In writing your own script, George, I realize you are in sympathy with contemporary filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and David O. Russell, who take pride in the fact that dialogue and scene structure emerge from interactions with cast members rather than from the dictates of screenplays.

Well that process may work from time to time, but frankly, much of the dialogue in “Monuments Men” made me miss the professional screenwriters of an earlier Hollywood era. In fact, elements of that more classical style may be as worth preserving as the objets d’art uncovered by your stalwart “Monuments Men.”

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  1. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Clooney is the modern Cary Grant of overdone material and buddy movies. He’s too involved in creative production to sit back and discover some writer who can write his way to serious acclaim.

  2. Roxie says:

    George Clooney maybe a great guy and he has a big fan base. I like him as a personality, but most of the films that he has made, starred in, written or directed are duds and not art. “Good Night, and Good Luck” which got good reviews, was a film with little dramatic tension and a strange ending. Burt Lancaster in his hay day did both commercial and art films. Lancaster with his big personality did commercial films like From Here to Eternity and the Crimson Pirate and then produced art films like Marty (written by Paddy Chayefsky) and Trapeze. George Clooney is not Burt Lancaster. He wants to be an auteur, but he should stick to being a movie star. By the way when I see a movie full of a star’s friends it breaks the illusion that the film is trying to create. When one sees the Monuments Men they are watching Clooney’s buddies playing themselves.

    • TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

      So true. As a power player, Clooney is good at getting projects green lit. But they fail to reach the quality he aspires to and leave much to be desired. He’s a vain victim of trying to wear too many hats.

  3. cadavra says:

    War movies that mix humor with heartbreak have been around forever, and such classics as MASH and THE DIRTY DOZEN made fortunes. MONUMENTS MEN is a terrific film, and $60 million in three weeks for an obviously older-skewing film full of not-youthful actors–the youngest principal is Matt Damon at 44–is nothing to sneeze at. (Oh, and by the way, THE TRAIN was a huge money-loser, and wasn’t reassessed as a great picture until many years later.)

  4. Diane Tierney says:

    I think George Clooney got it right. Just as Inglorious took “a dark war movie” and added humour, so does Monuments. This is a movie that everyone could see and enjoy, as it makes history and art available in fun-size form. I saw this movie on a dreary day with a diverse group (age, gender, etc.) and everyone came away smiling, laughing while quoting funny lines, more educated about the art of war so-to-speak, and glad we had seen it.


  5. Mediocre script and mediocre directing means a mediocre movie.
    And I was so excited about this one, you would think with such strong material the script would just write itself, but, yes, you can tell they were just trying so hard to “entertain”.
    That seems to be a modern problem in the film business, filmmakers these days always seem to be trying so hard to “entertain”, or worse, show off, instead of simply realizing that when you have a great story, get out of the way and let the story do the entertaining.
    But, I am a sucker, I love George as much as anyone and no matter what he does, he will get a slice of my dollar, maybe that is the problem?

  6. PK says:

    Because he’s who he is, and the academy tosses Oscars at him like drunk salesmen toss dollars at strippers in a bar in Vegas, he treats movies like a hobby. And if you dare criticize him he starts with the “I”m watching genocide in Darfur” stuff. Then he hops back to Lake Como with his latest model. Is he REALLY that talented? Or could the money being used to make his hobby movies best be used by real filmmakers (especially minority filmmakers). At least Brad Pitt helped to get 12 years a slave made.

  7. equipment guy says:

    To clarify my end statement: with digital filmmaking making it so easy and accesible to make a film we have the problem now that too many half baked scripts are being shot before they are ready and or maybe shouldn’t even be shot. So to reiterate just because these digital film makers can as with Clooney should they. For all the time and money it costs to make this film ($70 million said George) it just seems kind of thrown together and YES Peter Bart thank you for bringing up Paddy Chayefsky, still a must for all of us writers working in this industry. Do yourself a favor and watch Network once a year and LEARN how it’s done.

  8. equipment guy says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself, so many Directors today think they are Auteur. Write it, Direct it, Star in it, hell maybe even Edit it. The sad truth is there are very few that can/should be doing this. Orson Welles comes quick to mind. Warren Beatty(Reds) was good for a while but he also had Robert Towne in his back pocket writing (not shabby). Hell Cassavetes had it all going on and even he stayed out of his own movies, wrote/directed/kinda edited I believe at least that’s what Seymour told me. I think of George Clooney like I think of digital filmakiner, just because you can shoot a film should you. Do you really have a great script? Clooney can do it all he has the juice, should he? The writer of the article is correct the art of screenwritng is being pushed aside.

  9. LOL says:

    You tell him, Peter Bart!

  10. There certainly is something not quite right about it. The thing is, it’s a movie about a dry topic and it feels like Clooney is just trying so hard to make the audience feel involved and invested,. There’s a review for it here: http://thereeljunkie.com/2014/02/13/film-review-the-monuments-men/

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