Something borrowed, something less than new in Alexandre Desplat’s ‘The Monuments Men’

Bill Murray;Bob Balaban

The Monuments Men
Alexandre Desplat
Masterworks

How do we make the familiar feel new again? Or to pose that same question to a cynical studio executive, how do we sell audiences more of the same? It’s no industry secret that audiences seem more likely to turn up for sequels to established properties, remakes, and recognizable genres, and George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, the World War II-set The Monuments Men, most definitely falls into that last bucket. The second World War is easily cinema’s favorite war, and even as The Monuments Men‘s “based on true events” art heist seeks to remove it from expected tropes, the story of a rag-tag team going up against the Nazis isn’t a terribly new one.

It’s within that familiarity that Alexandre Desplat sets out in scoring The Monuments Men, and from the first downbeat, Desplat’s compositions draw from prior works in their best moments and spin their wheels in their worst. The first track, “The Roosevelt Mission,” features a reverent French horn and a lone trumpet heralding a sudden burst of energy as brass lines broaden in majestic fashion under fluffy figures in the woodwinds. Were it not for the returning minor motive in the horn, Desplat’s mood might feel too light — or to borrow from our own Josh Spiegel, “misguidedly chipper” — but the track balances uplift and somberness even if it ultimately goes nowhere.

It’s also one of two themes Desplat leans on in Monuments Men, often to stale extremes. The other, “Opening Titles,” gallops along an uppity fanfare with twirling strings that jive to a 2-4 rhythm. Later, the tune receives a staccato treatment in “Basic Training” and returns once more in “John Wayne” as a stressed woodwind-tuba pairing that’s nothing short of fantastic. Repackaging this “martial lite” progression is understandable, creating a mood that shares a kinship with the likes of Elmer Bernstein’s oft-recycled theme from The Great Escape. That’s lofty territory for a film that will likely be forgotten a year from now, but Desplat adopts a hearty, colonial style with ease and grace, a fact made all the more frustrating by his over reliance and the middling returns from it.

Repetition and variation can be a sign of depth in a score — Howard Shore says “Hello, Mr. Frodo” — but Desplat’s work is more of a crutch than a consistency here. “Heilbronn Mine” combines both themes to show how easily a reveille can become pure camp, but too many variations feel like re-insertions of more of the same, a copy-paste method that implores the listener ad nauseum or for fans of John Williams, via cultural touchstones. “Ghent Altarpiece” has the shimmering whimsy of early Star Wars, and there’s more than a touch of Stravinsky in “Sniper” — essentially, vintage Star Wars. With drastic horns and pounding percussion, the front-end of “I See You, Stahl” blares (fittingly) like the Nazi embellishments in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, while “Champagne” operates like Tchaikovsky as opening bells over a harp and strings shape a quaint waltz.

Truly, Williams owes a debt to the likes of “The Rite of Spring” and Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo & Juliet” overture as much as anyone, but frequent comparisons abound in Desplat’s The Monuments Men because the end result plays like watered-down version of legitimate inspiration, as if the composer had become too encumbered by his respect for Monsieur Williams to work beyond two terrific themes. By the whistles in the “End Credits” (again with the references) the familiarity is surreal. One can almost picture Jean Dujardin muttering a French platitude about déjà vu over much of it.

— David Klein

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