As the trailers and post-holiday pushback release suggested, George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is dead on arrival.
What went wrong? As a writer-director, Clooney is hit-or-miss. He's in love with old-fashioned Hollywood genres like the Cold War spy thriller comedy ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") or period sports romance ("Leatherheads") that would be a challenge for any director to pull off. They were both duds. On the other hand, black-and-white newsroom drama "Good Night, and Good Luck" earned six Academy Award nominations, and "Ides of March" scored another for scribe Beau Willamon, who went on to write "House of Cards."
Unfortunately, "Monuments Men," adapted from Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter's book by Clooney and his co-producer Grant Heslov, is one of Clooney's more flat-footed efforts. It means to be a John Frankenheimer wartime thriller with soldiers in danger trying to rescue the world's great works of art from the Nazis--art-lover Hitler has fantasies of a stocking a gigantic Fuhrer Museum. Various far-flung art-lovers in uniform under platoon leader Frank Stokes (Clooney) are racing ahead and behind various armies trying to get to the art before the Germans steal or destroy it. Some of them, inevitably, are killed. Clearly, these unlikely heroes (played by a charming cast of characters including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville and Bob Balaban) care about the fate of Da Vinci's The Last Supper and Michelangelo's Madonna and Child. And so should we.
It's a great story, one I would have liked to see in a snappy TV movie or documentary. But the pace drags, as Stokes pores over maps and lays out too much exposition. The period settings never come to believable life. It's a big old creaky airplane that never achieves liftoff.
Here's what other critics are saying:
It’s not only the great works of European art that have gone missing in “The Monuments Men”; the spark of writer-director-star George Clooney’s filmmaking is absent, too.
Something less than monumental, The Monuments Men wears its noble purpose on its sleeve when either greater grit or more irreverence could have put the same tale across to modern audiences with more punch and no loss of import.
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.
An all-star cast nails the period flavor, but the storytelling is all over the place as this true story about rescuing art from the Nazis goes from breezy to lumbering.