Monuments Men, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/06/14 20:49:52

"Starring George Clooney As The Big Toe"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

"The Monuments Men" is essentially the cinematic equivalent of the Denver Broncos. On paper, it would seem to have every possible advantage going for it--a potentially fascinating subject torn from the pages of history, a behind-the-scenes team that has been committed to producing smart and entertaining films aimed at a literate adult audience and a cast jam-packed with hugely talented actors whose very presence usually makes even the weakest movies at least somewhat watchable. And yet, in much the same way that the real-life Broncos failed to come close to living up to their theoretical superiority, their efforts are largely wasted on a project that is nowhere near as entertaining or edifying as it should have been given all the artistic muscle behind it. Granted, it doesn't fail as completely as the Broncos did a few days ago but in a weird way, that almost makes matters worse because the occasional bright spots are now all the more frustrating because of the way they suggest the film that could have been instead of the one that we have been given.

Based on the book by Robert M. Edsel, the film tells the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program, an effort instigated by President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II that was designed to both protect historical landmarks and artifacts from accidental destruction by Allied forces as they pushed their way on to Berlin and to track down priceless works of art that had been stolen by the Nazis on the orders of one-time failed artist Adolph Hitler, who planned to display them after the way in his own mammoth museum. The plan is to assemble a group of civilian experts, put them through basic training and then send them off to Europe to try to find the missing art and to advise the military on which buildings should not be destroyed along the way. Charged with the task of putting this group together is art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney), an art historian whose passionate talk on the importance of the arts and culture helped to sway Roosevelt to begin the program in the first place.

Stokes quickly assembles an Avengers-league collection of top experts in their respective fields--art restorer James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), theatrical producer Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), one-time British museum head Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and French painter Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin)--and after lumbering their way through training, they spread out on their various missions. There are the usual conflicts with military brass, who are more concerned with the lives of soldiers than in protecting art, but they still manage to liberate a number of pieces along the way. With the help of Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a French museum curator suspected of collaborating with the Germans, they are eventually able to track down where most of the missing pieces have been stashed but with the end of the war imminent, their mission becomes more complicated thanks to Hitler's Nero Decree, a directive to destroy all the art in the event of his death or the fall of Germany, and the approaching Russian army, which has been confiscating art themselves in the name of reparations. If that weren't enough, the guys make another unexpected discovery that winds up contributing heavily to Germany's eventual defeat.

This all sounds like fascinating and exciting stuff--a combination of an old-fashioned war film and a passionate declaration of the importance of art and culture in even the bleakest of times--and indeed, director John Frankenheimer and Burt Lancaster took similar thematic material and transformed it into the masterful war thriller "The Train." And yet, despite the sure-fire narrative, "The Monuments Men" never really takes off. In his past directorial efforts, Clooney has proven himself to be a smart and efficient filmmaker who is not afraid to deal with challenging material but this time out, he seems over his head. In transforming the sprawling narrative of Edsel's book into a manageable screenplay, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov have removed much of what made the story so special in the first place--detailed looks at guys willing to put their own lives on the line for art and the conflicts they had with soldiers trying to do their jobs and win the war--and transformed the rest into a overly familiar guys-on-a-mission presentation in which everyone is allowed one or two quirks to distinguish them from one another. When they do get around to speaking out on behalf of the arts, the speeches are nice enough but hardly memorable--they are the kind of boilerplate speeches that one might normally encounter in the midst of an especially listless awards show.

This still might have worked as a throwback to the meat-and-potatoes war movies of old--the kind that Hollywood used to crank out like clockwork back in the day--but Clooney never quite manages to make it click. There is no real sense of tension or excitement at any point and even the treasure hunt aspect that the ads are stressing comes up short--there is no feeling of discovery and the few mysteries on hand are dealt with in the most perfunctory manner imaginable. Although there is lots of talk about the important art objects they are trying to retrieve, only two of them--Michelangelo's statue of the Madonna of Bruges and the twelve-panel altarpiece "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb"--are given any significance and even at that, there is little sense of their importance as anything other than as things to keep the story moving along. The early scenes in which the guys first come together are probably the best because the actors are clearly having fun bouncing off of each other but before too long, they are sent off on separate adventures for large chunks of time and they are never able to recapture that energy on their own. Even the big climactic moments are presented in a manner that is far too low-key for their own good--it almost feels as if Clooney lost his nerve to give the story the large-scale treatment it deserves and instead chose a more timid-minded take that may have sounded intriguing in theory but which never quite works in practice.

Even though "The Monuments Men" never quite works as a whole, it does have its momentary pleasures. With the exception of Blanchett, whose way with the French language as shown here is worse than Damon's and it isn't supposed to be a gag, the actors all make the most of their somewhat underwritten parts with Murray and Balaban pretty much stealing the show with their genuinely witty Mutt & Jeff-style byplay. There are nice individual moments and snappy pieces of dialogue scattered throughout to at least temporarily disguise the fact that the film as a whole is not working. And even though he ultimately fails to bring it all together, Clooney deserves some credit for using his Hollywood clout to push through a project that must have given financiers some qualms--it is, after all, a World War II period piece that is more interested in extolling the virtues of fine art than it is in blowing stuff up. If ambition and effort were all that it took to make a good movie, "The Monuments Men" would be at the top of the class. Instead, it is the kind of film where once it is all over, you find yourself looking forward in earnest to the remake in the hopes that they will get it right the next time around.

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