There are two ways to view the ensemble historical drama The Monuments Men: the first is through the unfiltered eyes of the average moviegoer, interested in the genre and impressed by its stellar cast. The other way is to take a more realistic view of its rise from Oscar-sure-to-be to its odd February banishment. Regardless of how you look at it, the film utterly disappoints, playing fast and loose with its history and wasting every one of its emotional assets along the way.
Based on Author Robert M. Edsel's account, the movie follows a group of American artists and designers as they struggle to preserve the world's greatest works of art while the final months of World War II draw to an end. The Nazis have been hording art and sculptures in the hopes of showcasing all of them in a Fuhrer Museum; but as the war turns against them, the Nazis decide to hide the precious works in mines across a battered Europe. Cue the concerned art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney) who recruits a 1940's nerd version of Ocean's Eleven: an expert art restorer (Matt Damon), an architect (Bill Murray), a sculptor (John Goodman), a theater guy (Bob Balaban), a disgraced British museum head (Hugh Bonneville), and a former French painting instructor (Jean Dujardin). As the team begins their search, they will learn the cruelty of Hitler's actions and will be unprepared at what the horrors of war have in store for them.
Monuments Men isn't terrible, but its script by Clooney and Grant Heslov doesn't capture the excitement of a true-life tale and misses every opportunity to impress and inspire us beyond the automatic support we naturally grant it. Everything here feels superficial and bland, as if the personalities behind these remarkable men and women weren't deemed exciting enough to keep our interest. What these people did should be celebrated, for the Nazis plan in 1945 to destroy the art would have resulted in a cultural vacuum from which the world could never recover. But the Director Clooney can't get out of his own way here, limping through that harsh reality while his first-rate talent is given nothing memorable to say. While turning in understated performances, a key scene between Murray and Balaban has no emotional connection and feels victim to an earlier edit that keeps us from learning more about Murray's personal life. The real star here is the French art curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who knows the location of her stolen pieces but is worried that the Americans will steal them for themselves. Blanchett has been our favorite since she was denied an Oscar for the amazing Elizabeth (look up who actually won and you'll become nauseated), and she's the only thing keeping this from being a total snooze-fest. When she's gone, Clooney and company try to look worried about Hitler's devious plans and try to be funny when it's time for the requisite laugh, but mostly stumble through each scene like they grabbed a camera and shot it guerrilla style. Continuity is off, our actors become emotional without good enough reasons, and the 50's Hollywood style of oft-repeating the film's theme from Alexander Desplat gets old about 40 minutes in.
What also bothers us is more practical: if the film was aiming to celebrate the good deeds of the these remarkable people, then why change their names? The real heroes - George Stout and Rose Vallard - have been replaced by Stokes and Simone, a decision that's not only unnecessary but a tad insulting. Historical accuracy should have been one of its many strengths, but instead we're gripped by an exceeding dull art heist flick that has something important to say but never gets to it. And this is why The Monuments Men saw its enticing December release bumped to January and then February. Don't believe the bull which the promoters are shoveling that the film needed "more production time": this probably explains why the MPAA left an empty spot in the Best Picture nominations, as it was probably meant for Monuments. It's not only the amazing museum pieces that have gone missing here, but the spark of a well-made George Clooney film.
The Monuments Men could have inspired the average moviegoer to research one of the great forgotten stories of World War II; instead, it bores us with a style equal to a dull museum docent who dutifully memorizes the company script while ignoring their audience's questions or the opportunity for a teachable moment. For a film so obsessed with art, we hear so little about its value from Clooney and company that its message soon is reduced to a re-steal caper. Perhaps one day we'll learn the real story of these brave and unassuming men, for their sacrifice saved Europe from intellectual destruction, and that has to be more interesting than this overly-scrubbed and tepid affair. The Monuments Men is rated PG-13 and has a runtime of 118 minutes.
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