By Caryn James | James on Screens January 29, 2014 at 12:25PM
The Monuments Men begins with a captivating scene, set in Belgium during World War II. We see close-ups of a work of art -- van Eyck's 15th century Ghent Altarpiece -- hear banging, then see priests crate up the individual panels of the painting, put them in a truck in the dark of night and send it off for safekeeping -- only, we soon hear, to have the Nazis waylay the truck and add the masterpiece to the piles of stolen art Hitler is accumulating for his planned Fuhrer Museum.
George Clooney is director, co-writer, star and driving force behind this adventure, based on facts too crazy to have made up: late in the war, the American military created a small international group of art curators, historians and architects, who joined up as overaged soldiers, to find and save thousands of priceless works by Michelangelo, Leonardo, Vermeer and others. For much of the time, The Monuments Men is Oceans 11 (and 12 and 13) with Nazis, a heist movie with Clooney and his gang going after looted masterpieces rather than Vegas cash.
Early on, we even see Clooney's character, a curator named Frank Stokes (based on the real-life Fogg Museum curator George Stout) round up his team one by one, just like Danny Ocean. On screen, Clooney is in old-movie-star mode -- dashing, graying, with a Clark Gable moustache. And off-screen he has put together a group so high-profile and accomplished we hardly have to say the film is blissfully acted. Matt Damon plays a Metropolitan Museum curator sent to France to work with Cate Blanchett's character, a French Resistance fighter who works at the Jeu de Paume and knows the Nazis' secrets. For comic relief, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are teamed up as bickering architects. John Goodman is the epitome of the out-of-shape but savvy American, while Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville represent the international aspect of the Monuments Men team. (They are based on actual people, whose stories are in Robert Edsel's book, the main source for the film.)
The Monuments Men race around German, Italy, and France in jeeps, they are shot at, they blow things up and eventually find underground mines so laden with treasures the mines might be rooms at the Louvre. It is all entertaining enough. Yet in the end it is also strangely flat.
Part of the problem is that the movie never quite convinces us of the high stakes behind the mission -- not until, very late in the film and with the war lost, we see Nazis set fire to a room full of paintings. And all those scenes of jeeps and tents and care packages from home feel stale. We know that Clooney is deeply nostalgic, but what might be homage to old war movies plays as cliched.
The biggest problem -- the lethal problem -- is that in addition to all his other roles, Clooney assumes one more familiar posture: America's schoolteacher. (Think about how often he has scolded us, about everything from paparazzi to bad journalism.) We first see Stokes at a lectern, showing slides and telling FDR -- while informing us -- about the need for a Monuments Men team. After he gets the team, every now and then he gives his men an inspirational little pep talk about the need to preserve our cultural heritage. And every time, it feels like he's lecturing at us. Nothing matters to me more than art and cutlure, so I hate saying so, but I wish Clooney's head worked as well as his heart on this one. The trite preachiness doesn't help a film that is ostensibly about great art.
Shifting back and forth between caper and classroom lesson, the film never finds a comfortable tone. And when the caper turns serious, even tragic, it also becomes mawkish. Stokes tells his team that with the loss of one of its members "we earned the right to wear the uniform." Alexandre Desplat's disappointing score gives sappy cues in scenes like this, just as it goes for retro World War II movie music for the action scenes.
Clooney and Grant Heslov, who wrote the screenplay, displayed a similar heavy-handed moralism in Good Night, and Good Luck. Their screenplay for The Ides of March, about political wheeling-dealing and back-stabbing, was written with Beau Willimon and actually improved on Willimon's play Farragut North. The difference is not the one Clooney points out in the new film's production notes. "We've made some cynical films, but in general, we really aren't cynical people," he says of his work with Heslov on Ides. This time, "We wanted to do a movie that wasn't cynical, a movie that was straightforward, old-fashioned, and had a positive forward movement to it." Fair enough, but a better film would have shown us the value of art, without spoon-feeding us clunky lines and mini-lectures.
Despite all this, Clooney arrives at a very touching ending. And you have to admire what he's trying to do. Along with Oprah, he has the most pronounced social conscience in the entertainment business, no small achievement. But if The Monuments Men had been less finger-wagging, had reached beyond Hollywood cliches and trusted the audience more, it might have achieved the level that Clooney's good intentions and the great art that Monuments Men saved both deserve.