George Clooney seems to be the poster child for the “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” principle. Written by Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov, “The Monuments Men” seems to have all the perfect ingredients for a proper throwback: endearing stars, distant backdrops, high cultural stakes. So when you realize that it’s not working, the first question you have to ask is: what the hell happened?
There were signs of trouble. When Clooney pushed the movie from its prestigious year-end spot because of delayed special effects, we were worried. February meant no Oscar grabs. February meant it was all going downhill.
Based on a nonfiction book of the same name by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, the film centers around a group of bookish, out-of-shape academics and artists, led by Frank Stokes (Clooney). The men are tasked with finding stolen masterpieces of Western art hidden by the Nazis, and returning them to their rightful owners as the war comes to a close.
While the young art curator James Granger (Matt Damon) flies off to Paris to look into private art collections, the not-so-young alcoholic Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville — that guy from Downton Abbey) heads to his old ‘pissing ground’ [is that what it’s called?] in hopes of not making a fool of himself.
After basic training, the rest of the men are split up into rag-tag teams — architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) with art enthusiast Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban); sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), with Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin). They are set loose amid the wreckage of Normandy, St. Lo and the Bulge where jaunty adventures are interrupted only by the frequent “why we fight” speech from Stokes via radio.
And it almost works. The whole thing — with the slow fades, super relaxed vibes, and unsung heroes — it really does almost work. But what the film ends up being is a lackadaisical treasure hunt, broken up by Roosevelt-esque “fireside chats,” with Clooney earnestly preaching about culture. It almost feels like one of those education cartoons they make you watch to understand how the war went down. There is death, and there is cheer, and there is no in between. But there is no suspense, no tension or character development.
Yet you keep waiting for it to kick into gear. For the odd-couple wise cracking between Murray and Balaban to mean something. For Hugh Bonneville’s redemption (but unfortunately shortened screen time). For this movie to be more than just “Oceans Eight” with more historical impact.
And sometimes you’ll catch glimpses of what this film’s potential; even before the film was released, you could tell how much effort was being used just getting the movie made. How invested these men were in making it. The actors that made this movie what it was were paid a tenth of what they would normally. Clooney was held up at gunpoint in Darfur while doing research.
It seems most of the passion was used up before the film even hit the screen, although there are fragments left. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Claire Simone, the French art historian and resistance fighter, can only be described as smoldering.
Murray hearing his family singing him Christmas carols over the loudspeaker, is one of the most human moments in the entire film. The glimpses of the team arriving at Normandy, the long shot of workers cleaning up the rubble surrounding The Last Supper painting. Powerful, to say the least.
But by the end of it, you are left with the disappointing realization that it’s not going anywhere. The film won’t overcome its wild mood swings and overwhelming nostalgia. It won’t ever feel like the wartime it’s supposedly set in. It will feel like a movie — often a very entertaining one, but campy and preaching, and as scattered as the Rembrandts, Picassos, and thousands of other pieces of art carefully strewn throughout Germany for these charismatic stars to stumble upon.