The Monuments Men should have been a slam dunk. A passion project for writer/director/star George Clooney, the film features a stellar cast, excellent production values and tells a compelling story about World War II that eschews the usual bullets and bloodshed jingoism in an effort to make larger points about how the destruction of a society's culture is even more insidious than the murder of its people. Clooney's detractors love to point out that he's a Liberal (heavens no!), but even the haters will have to admit that George's bleeding heart is in the right place here.
That said, there's been a distinct stench of failure trailing Monuments Men ever since its mid-December release date was scrapped and the film was delayed until February — a month traditionally reserved by Hollywood for dumping shit flicks on a tuned-out public that's still trying to catch up on the Oscar nominees or skipping the multiplex entirely. (It's easy for us Floridians to forget that much of the country is currently choosing to huddle around space heaters instead of trudging through winter weather on the way to the theater.) The "official" story is that post-production took longer than anticipated, but I had a bad feeling that Clooney and company had laid an egg.
Now that I've seen it, I can report that Monuments Men is kind of a mess — especially when it comes to narrative cohesion — but it's also far from unwatchable. The fatal flaw lies in the film's attempt to balance its sobering story with a comedic tone, à la Kelly's Heroes (a film Clooney acknowledges was an inspiration). The mix can be exhilarating when done right (like in David O. Russell's films, for example), but here the comedic bits only serve to neuter the drama and undercut the message.
Clooney stars as the leader of a special squad of Allied soldiers tasked with finding and returning the many European art treasures pilfered by the Nazis. Hitler, a frustrated painter and one-time art student, had designs on building a huge museum in his Austrian home town and filling it with classic paintings and sculptures swiped from churches, museums and private homes in countries overrun by the blitzkrieg. The rub is that Clooney's team is made up of middle-aged doughboys (Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville) and combat neophytes (Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Dimitri Leonidas) far more fit for the classroom than the battlefield.
Beyond that, there's not much to Monuments Men. There's a nominal mystery (Where are the Nazis hiding the art?), some really nice scenes involving Damon and Cate Blanchett playing a Parisian museum curator, and a gaggle of well-liked actors alternating punchlines (many of them at least amusing, though rarely hilarious) and tears. But the whole enterprise is oddly flat, more a jumble of scenes meant to evoke a reaction than a coherent assemblage of events that tell a larger story. The movie also lacks a compelling villain, which is really saying something about a flick in which Adolph Hitler features prominently.
I was never bored by Monuments Men, but I was never inspired by it either. There's a compelling true story behind this movie, one that I hope is remembered long after this film is completely forgotten — which I'm guessing will be by the first week of March.