An inspirational account of a little-known historical saga directed by George Clooney and co-written by Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov (2011's "The Ides of March
") sounds like an auspicious beginning for any prestige studio project. The outcome does not exactly live up to these presumed standards. Sluggish, slight and underdeveloped, "The Monuments Men" never manages to shift out of first gear until it's nearly over, and by then it's too late. The story is a worthy one, fascinating on its own yet drained of gravitas by the time Clooney gets done with it. If he is aiming to make a comedy, the characters mug on occasion but the film is never once particularly funny. If he wanted to helm a more serious treatment of his subject, why did he adopt a confectioned tone that rarely tries to dig beneath the script's flimsy, emotionally removed surface?
As dedicated soldiers and military men continued to fight in World War II, art conservationist Frank Stokes (George Clooney) led an allied platoon of eightamong them, medieval art curator James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), French designer Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and theatre director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban)into Germany to locate and protect the stolen monuments and paintings intended for Hitler's planned Führer Museum. Their mission, pressing on for over a year as the war steadily begins to wind down, will take them across enemy lines as they race against time to find the hidden masterpieces and return them to their rightful owners.
Based on the book "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History" by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, "The Monuments Men" was originally positioned for release in December 2013 for awards consideration, but was abruptly delayed until the following February. Columbia Pictures claimed the hold-up was due to the picture not being finished in time, but there was clearly another reason why the studio didn't fight Clooney on his request for a longer post-production schedule: despite lofty aspirations, it simply isn't very good. Edited with a deliberate, groggy gait, only buoyed on occasion by Alexandre Desplat's (2012's "Zero Dark Thirty
") rousingly nostalgic, vaguely John Williams-esque music score, the film is missing the critical passion that must have been involved in these men's decision to risk their lives and defend the culture they so believed in.
It doesn't help that the characters are such colorless hollow shells, characterized almost entirely by their professional title in passing voice-overs. Outside of this, it is mentioned that a few of the men are married or have kids, and…that's all. This testament of negligent screenwriting carries over to the outstanding ensemble cast, who are so misused they might as well not have shown up. Hesitant to monopolize the spotlight, George Clooney (2013's "Gravity
") gives himself almost nothing to do as leader Frank Stokesthat is, until a late monologue about the sacrifices he's made and his longing to return to the States that proves so riveting in comparison to all that has gone before it feels like disconnected footage from a superior version of this story. As James Granger, Matt Damon (2013's "Elysium
") only comes alive when he is sharing the screen with Cate Blanchett (2013's "Blue Jasmine
"), doing all that she can to bring a little meat to her middling part as Claire Simone, a French museum curator who aids the platoon in their espionage scheme. As for Bill Murray (2012's "Moonrise Kingdom
") and John Goodman (2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis
"), a criminal investigation should go into effect over how grievously their talents are wasted here.
There are too many missed opportunities in "The Monuments Men" to count, but the film as a whole is not overtly terrible so much as it is disappointingly mediocre. This is a ho-hum treatment of a true (if slightly fictionalized) tale, lacking in depth and proper narrative involvement. The climax, set in an underground Merkers salt mine, finally picks up the pace, but by then this upshot in momentum is but an empty diversion to the movie's bigger deficiencies. With no characters to get to know well enough to care about and an artistic-minded moral that is told but not convincingly shown, the experience becomes little more than an exercise in good-looking technical credits. Phedon Papamichael's (2013's "Nebraska
") cinematography is exotic and golden-hued, and costumes and art direction are ace across the board. Regrettably, there is zilch to grasp beneath the surface attractiveness. There is no excuse for feeling neutral and unmoved about a film unless it hasn't done its job. "The Monuments Men" is exhibit A.