At the height of conflict during World War II, the allied forces invading Nazi-occupied Europe found themselves with a challenging predicament on their hands: fighting across this particular theatre would sometimes mean putting the greatest artistic treasures of the western world in harm’s way. The advent of bombers, tanks, and all manner of explosives made cultural collateral damage more likely than ever, but weighed against the greatest threat the free world had ever known, art preservation was low on the list of priorities for most. Not so for The Monuments Men, a group of socialites-turned-soldiers that went to Europe specifically to save and steal art from Nazi hands, ensuring some of the world’s irreplaceable works of art would be cherished by generations beyond just the greatest one.
And just as every generation of filmgoers gets the James Bond and Batman it deserves, now every generation of audience member is getting an Avengers-style team-up film designed to capture demographic interests and dollars. The “more is more” approach of cramming together stars from similar genres and backgrounds leaves as much room for elbows as it does actual storytelling, but the numbers don’t lie. Last fall’s Last Vegas was a miserable walk down memory lane that proved the price of seeing Robert De Niro get a lap dance from one of the guys from LMFAO was $120 million in box office receipts. Meanwhile, Sylvester Stallone and his band of merry meatheads used The Expendables to get the lead out of his stalled career, to the machine gun-timed tune of nearly $600 million as a franchise.
Enter George Clooney, looking to bridge the gap between the highest of high art, and bald-faced commercialism masquerading as art, by bringing us The Monuments Men. Adapting Robert Edsel’s narrative account of the real Monuments Men, Clooney (along with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov), runs the show as star, writer, and director, and watching The Monuments Men feels akin to seeing him try to force two like-poled magnets together.
On the one hand, the film requires gravitas and dramatic heft you’ve come to expect from World War II films and Clooney himself, both as an actor (Syriana) and director (Good Night and Good Luck). On the other, is the convivial, “let’s put on a show!” attitude you expect from both large ensemble films, and again, Clooney himself, both as actor (the Ocean’s trilogy) and director (Leatherheads). Rather than risk throwing the mixture out of balance by leaning too heavily in one direction, Clooney plays it safe, delivering an inoffensive, well-intentioned mix of heist and war film that goes down like a cup of lukewarm sleepytime tea.
Clooney stars as Frank Stokes, an army Lieutenant and historical preservationist responsible for launching the Monuments Men program in early 1944. About the only thing Stokes and Indiana Jones would have had in common is a doctorate in art history, so rather than purloin treasures from the Nazis all by himself, he rounds up a motley group of architects, sculptors, and translators to get from basic training to the frontlines in mere months. The “getting the gang together” montage, which often constitutes the foreplay of this kind of picture, is blown through like an afterthought, as Clooney’s interests lay elsewhere.
In tow is a who’s-who of loveable character actors, including Bill Murray, who spends much of the film in a lackadaisical rivalry with Bob Balaban’s testy Private Savitz, and John Goodman as Walter Garfield (a name that brings to mind both one of Goodman’s most famous roles, and one of Murray’s most infamous). Representing the Europeans are Downton Abbey fusspot Hugh Bonneville as a Brit with a booze-soaked past, and Best Actor-winner Jean Dujardin as the squad’s French connection.
Rounding out the raiders of the lost art is Matt Damon, finally old enough to not have to be the young gun, after the likes of Saving Private Ryan and Ocean’s Eleven made him forever seem a spring chicken on celluloid. All that’s missing for a true Ocean’s Eleven reunion is Brad Pitt, but he probably got his fill of WWII hijinks back with Inglourious Basterds, which The Monuments Men plays like a more stately, watered-down version of (even going so far as to include Cate Blanchett as a French resistance member who could pass for Mélanie Laurent’s bookish older sister).
While Basterds felt overstuffed with players, at least they were characters; as a group, Clooney’s dirty half-dozen-or-so click together with easy chemistry, their guarded histories and relationships an unspoken sign of camaraderie, but as individuals, the meat is in the performers, not the parts. The film quickly splinters the ensemble into pairings and plots that plod through the European countryside at a snail’s pace, exploring many common Big Ideas of war fiction, not just the unique cultural angle that The Monuments Men brings to the table.
Clooney’s goal is commendable, as to polish down this story into a slam-bang actioneer, or a madcap caper would be a disservice to the both the real Monuments Men, and the art they sought to protect. But that respect leaves a fine cast with only soft notes to play, as many of the film’s actual gags barely register as more than amusing, let alone outright funny. (The best jokes in the film play on the men’s shaky status as soldiers, whether landing on an empty Normandy in July, not June, of 1944, or hearing of the war’s end in completely benign fashion). At the center of the film is a thought-provoking question of the value that works of great beauty and splendor have in an often ugly and violent world, but The Monuments Men’s charms lay solely with the histories of its distinguished cast, and not its exploration of actual history.
Good intentions and a stellar cast should amount to much more in The Monuments Men, a war picture for the aged, but not the ages.