Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
There is a certain level of enjoyment you are guaranteed when signing on for a movie that boasts a cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray. And that's the precise level of enjoyment you'll get from The Monuments Men — that bare minimum smirk factor inherent the idea that your favorite stars are getting to play together. In FDR-era army helmets, no less. But what we also get from the film is an aura of smug self-confidence from project captain Clooney, who seems all too ready to take for granted that we're perfectly satisfied peering into his backyard clubhouse.
So assured is the director/co-writer that we're happy to be in on the game that there doesn't seem to be any effort taken to refine the product for the benefit of a viewing audience. An introductory speech from art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) sets up the premise straight away: the Nazis are stealing and destroying all of Europe's paintings and sculptures, and by gum we need to stop them! The concept doesn't complicate from there, save for a batting back and forth of the throughline question about whether the preservation of these pieces is "really worth it." Stokes rallies his own Ocean's Seven on a fine arts rescue mission, instigating an old fashioned go-get-'em-boys montage where we learn everything we need to know about the band mates in question: Damon has a wife, Goodman has gumption, Murray doesn't smile, Bob Balaban is uppity, and Jean Dujardin is French.
The closest thing to a character in The Monuments Men comes in the form of Hugh Bonneville, a recovering alcoholic whose motivation to take on the dangerous mission is planted in a festering desire to absolve himself of a lifetime of f**king up. When we're away from Bonneville, the weight disspears, as does most of the joy. Without identifiable characters, even master funnymen like Goodman, Murray, and Balaban don't have much to offer... especially since the movie's jokes feel like first draft placeholders born on a tired night.
Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
But wait a minute, is this even supposed to be a comedy? After all, it's about World War II. And no matter what Alexandre Desplat's impossibly merry score would have you believe (coupled with The Lego Movie, this opening weekend might be responsible for more musical jubilance than any other since the days of "Make 'Em Laugh!"), warfare, genocide, and desecration of international culture all make for some pretty heavy material. But The Monuments Men's drama is just as fatigued as its humor, clumsily piecing together a collection of mini missions wherein the stakes, somehow, never seem to jump. We're dragged through military bases, battered towns, and salt mines by Clooney and the gang — occasionally jumping over to France to watch Damon work his least effective magic in years on an uptight Cate Blanchett, who holds the key to the scruffy American's mission but doesn't quite trust him... until, for no apparent reason, she suddenly does. We never feel like any of these people matter, not even to each other, so we never really feel like their adventures do.
The Monuments Men doesn't have much of a challenge ahead of it. Its heroes are movie stars, its bad guys are Nazis, and its message is one that nobody's going to refute: art is important — a maxim it pounds home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, through countless scenes of men staring in awe at the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. And in this easy endeavor, Clooney decides to coast. How could it possibly go wrong? Just grab hold of the fellas, toss 'em in the trenches, and let the laughs and danger write themselves. "This is what they came to see," Monuments Men insists. "Just us guys havin' a ball." But we never feel in on the game, and it isn't one that looks like that much fun anyhow.
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You know you're in trouble when the terse ironically un-ironic supplementary notes are introduced hogging up half the screen--the cheapest way literally and figuratively to help tell a story. Then we get into the meat of the movie. Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) meets and is subsequently blackmailed by a struggling filmmaker (Jesse Bradford) who claims to know the whereabouts of her 20-year-old estranged son; Charley (Steve Coogan) and his boyfriend Gil (David Sutcliffe) think that their best friends Pam (Laura Dern) and her girlfriend Diane (Sarah Clarke) are lying about using Gil's sperm; and Otis (Jason Ritter) a young gay man tries to stave off the suspicions of his father (Tom Arnold) by "dating" the neighborhood leech Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) only to find out that she's really after his father's money. Whew! And just when you think each "separate" story can't get any more convoluted tangential sub-stories emerge. Plus you've got those notes that keep popping up telling the audience how to feel. We will begrudgingly resist the obligatory--and in this case not-so-friendly--play on words the title invites.
To Happy Endings' credit the acting is quite good. In fact it's the film's saving grace and perhaps its only redeeming quality. Kudrow--doing nothing to dispel the theory that the only post-Friends cast member getting any legitimate film offers is Jennifer Aniston--at least turns in another fine dramatic performance as the hard-luck Mamie. Coogan (Around the World in 80 Days) proves himself incapable of bad work with his take as a modern-day cynic. Gyllenhaal although still stellar with her enigmatic sultry trademark (not to mention the eyes) might be moving dangerously close to being typecast as the sexual deviant she started in Secretary (not that we're complaining). Ritter son of the late John Ritter is surprisingly strong as a conflicted teenager torn between his father's expectations and his own while Bradford (Swimfan) quickly becoming a veritable indie veteran gives a powerful performance as the ambiguous filmmaker (an unintentional running theme throughout). But the breakout performance oddly enough comes from Arnold. The actor who is most often associated with belligerence and baaaadcomedies as well as the whole Roseanne saga plays it down considerably as Frank a long-suffering widower and single parent who has too much money and not enough love. He'll the surprise the dozens who will turn out to see the film.
Writer-director Don Roos has had his hand in nine feature films now--mostly as a writer--but is most revered for writing and directing 1998 critically acclaimed dark comedy The Opposite of Sex. Those stellar subtle techniques he displayed in Sex however are hard to spot in Happy Endings. Clearly Roos has a penchant for complex storylines but more isn't always better. Trying to bring together such stories tenuous to begin with by way of mere coincidence doesn't work. The use of the split-screen "addendums"--so to speak--that pop up throughout the film are a collective cop-out. They distract detract and alienate audiences more so than even subtitles because the tidbits are stream-of-consciousness. Plus they reveal integral pieces of information with a certain unsuccessful flamboyance. This technique is usually only used on the most rudimentary filmmaking/screenwriting level. And with all of the script's vigorous efforts trying to remove us so far from the inevitable the end is still incredibly anti-climactic and predictable.