By Drew Taylor | The Playlist January 29, 2014 at 12:00PM
"The Monuments Men" always felt like a worthwhile (if dicey) proposition: it's the true-life tale of a band of Allied art historians and curators who are dropped into occupied territory during the frenzied final moments of World War II, and their goal was simple and seemingly insurmountable. In the words of one character, they were to "protect what's left and find what's missing." Or, secure all of the bridges, artwork, and architectural treasures, while also locating notable works of art that had been stolen by the Nazis and returning them to their rightful owners. Considering how well traveled World War II movies are, it stood to reason that a different take would be welcome and somewhat tricky. Turns out it was even trickier than originally imagined and that for all of its best efforts, "The Monuments Men" remains an unwieldy, overtly sentimental (but still emotionally distant) epic.
George Clooney co-wrote and directed "The Monuments Men" and—keeping with the Ben Affleck School of giving yourself the dullest role in your own movie—stars as George Stout, the man who put this mission together. At the beginning of the movie he stands in front of the president, making a slideshow presentation for preserving the fate of Europe's greatest works of art. The president nods and shrugs, giving him the half-assed order to go ahead and put a team together. Clooney, a veteran of the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise, does just that.
That team includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville. They're all connected to the art world in some way (Balaban seems to be a curator, Murray an architect), but their role in the real world is breezed by in favor of getting the team together, which doesn't make much sense because, after a handful of serio-comic moments at a training base in America, they are dispatched to Europe and splinter again. That's one of the key problems of "The Monuments Men"— it's tragically short on momentum and instead spirals out into a series of rambling, uninvolving subplots where the actors are paired up with someone else and sent to fiddle around in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Some of these escapades are more involving than others. Balaban and Murray are an odd couple sent in search of a priceless piece of Roman Catholic artwork, while Clooney generally tries to figure out what the hell is going on, and Goodman and Dujardin are up to... something. The best, most emotionally gripping subplot involves Damon traveling to a recently freed Paris to try and convince Cate Blanchett, a fastidious member of the rebellion, to spill the beans as to where the art is being secreted away. The end of the war is looming, and with it the dual threat of Germans destroying everything they have and invading Russian forces looking to loot for themselves (not to mention the possibility that Allied forces will mistakenly drop bombs where bombs are not meant to be dropped).
There's no real structure to these side missions, and oftentimes they just kind of run out of steam instead of actually resolving themselves. There's a staggering lack of actual detective work in this movie, with characters looking at maps maybe a handful of times; instead they just kind of happen into situations, most of the time fueled by nothing more dramatically urgent than happenstance. Most of the time these sequences feel inconsequential and loopy. Clooney talked openly about having a hard time nailing down the tone of "The Monuments Men" since it oscillates so wildly between goofiness and heart-tugging sentimentality, and the final product shows that he was never able to reconcile these two halves of the story. It would be one thing if the wackiness of these missions was wholly involving, but they rarely are. These guys are supposedly the best in their respective fields, but they're lousy soldiers, and try as Clooney might, with soaring musical cues from Alexandre Desplat, inspirational voiceover narration, and shots of a billowing American flag, it's awfully hard to give a shit about whether they live or die and whether or not they succeed in their mission. Especially since, you know, the Holocaust.
It's hard to fault a movie so competently made and well intentioned. "The Monuments Men" is gorgeously shot by "The Descendants" DP Phedon Papamichael with a muted palette that suggests that colors were also rationed during World War II. Desplat's score manages to be both grating and over-the-top but also rousing and beautiful. Thankfully, the cast does a wonderful job given the limited amount of material they have to work with. The impression that they said yes to the project because George Clooney called and asked them and not because they were particularly inspired by the screenplay hangs in the air like a low lying fog, but it's hard to exactly blame them. As expected, Blanchett is the standout, adding some much-needed female strength and, just as important, a splash of sex appeal. Too bad Damon is such a square he doesn’t give in.
Clooney has always been a fan of period throwbacks, whether it’s the '70s conspiratorial aura of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" or the screwball antics of "Leatherheads" (it's also interesting to note that all of his features, including "Ides of March," have been set in the past), and with "The Monuments Men" he's going for an insanely specific tone, full of well-worn archetypes. It certainly creates an atmosphere, unhurried and warmly earthy, but when the formerly alcoholic fuck-up desperate for a second chance appears on screen, it's hard not to figure out that he'll be the first casualty of this particular war.
As an actor, Clooney can occasionally be arch, bordering on glib, radiating the impression that he knows more than anybody else on screen (and probably more than most of the audience). But as a director he's earnest to a fault, and in his attempt to pull off a feel-good movie about art restorers bumbling around war-torn Europe, you can't help but get the feeling that he's bitten off more than he can chew. This is a story that desperately needs to be told, but more effectively as some kind of multi-part HBO miniseries and not a 120-minute post-Christmas romp. Its goofiness is distinctive, for sure, but it makes the movie come across as more "Captain America: The First Avenger" than "Saving Private Ryan." If some cataclysmic event were threatening the cultural legacy of America, it's hard to imagine anyone would make an attempt to save "The Monuments Men" from the flames of war. [B-]