Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett
Written By: George Clooney and Grant Heslov (based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter)
Directed By: George Clooney
For a movie that claims to be based on the true story of the greatest treasure hunt/art heist in history, there’s not much hunting or heisting going on in The Monuments Men. In place of suspense is a tell, don’t show approach to filmmaking – with an overabundance of lectures and exposition doing a major disservice to this fascinating tale. The film has its moments where it comes to life and co-writer/director/star George Clooney isn’t without talent behind the camera, but he makes some ‘monumental’ missteps in the crafting of The Monuments Men.
Near the end of World War II, the Nazi’s had stolen art from all over Europe with the intention to destroy it if Hitler were to die or the Third Reich to fall. The US Government recruits preservationist Frank Stokes (Clooney) to put together a team of non-combatant art experts to go behind enemy lines and salvage these artistic masterpieces to essentially “save history”.
In a montage sequence reminiscent of the one in Ocean’s Eleven, only way less energetic, Stokes visits his comrades one by one to enlist them for the mission. “The Monuments Men”, as the team would be called, consists of a museum director (Matt Damon), an architect (Bill Murray), a sculptor (John Goodman), an art historian (Bob Balaban) – and also characters played by Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville. Not sure what their occupations are. In fact, all of the men’s identities are so quickly glossed over that I had to look up the roles of the other actors.
Boasting an all-star cast and a captivating never-before-told true story, how could The Monuments Men go wrong? It goes wrong. What should have been a suspenseful caper is instead a dull mess that never gels together due to sloppy structuring, inefficient pacing and a criminal underuse of stellar actors. When you hire gems like Bill Murray and John Goodman to take on supporting roles, you’d think it would be a no brainer that they’d elevate the movie – yet due to a lack of character development, neither man displays much of an individual personality. Think of the fantastic appearances from Goodman in films like Flight, Argo and Inside Llewyn Davis. And how about Murray in Zombieland? Need I say more? There’s nothing memorable to see here from either actor.
Clooney doesn’t seem sure of what kind of movie he wants to make and as a result the film never finds a tonal balance. Shifting moods from one scene to the next, at times it’s a somber war drama, at times a historical reenactment – while other sequences go for Hogan’s Heroes style hijinks. There’s also a barely explored and unnecessary romantic subplot between Damon’s character and a French secretary played by Cate Blanchett, who begrudgingly works for an S.S. Officer and ends up aiding the men in their quest.
What’s troubling about the tonal inconsistencies is that some of the scenes work quite well, but they play out like standalone vignettes that have no relation to one another. There are a handful of entertaining sections sprinkled throughout, some noteworthy ones including a shootout that Goodman and Dujardin’s characters get involved with, Murray and Balaban’s interaction with a runaway Nazi – as well as a fairly engaging third act where the men finally team up after having spent most of the film in separate pairs.
The final scenes are where something resemblant of a heist take place, but at that point, it’s too little too late. Towards the end of the film, Clooney delivers a powerful monologue to a captured Nazi Officer during an interrogation. It’s a great scene, but it also further points out the glaring lack of well-written dialogue and suspense from the rest of the movie.
The Monuments Men is a mostly dull experience that features some very good moments, but they’re few and far between. It’s an undisciplined film that has such a lack of story structure, most scenes could have been rearranged in any particular order without it making much of a difference. Perhaps Clooney would have been a great history professor but if he wants to be a great filmmaker, he’s going to have to do better than The Monuments Men.