George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is an entirely respectable film. And that's why it's a disappointment.
With all the talent involved, the charismatic filmmaker's latest should be exceptional. As it is, the star-studded "Men" is bland, a missed opportunity to be something better.
The premise is certainly unbeatable, recounting the valiant actions of a band of art appreciators and scholars who heroically ventured onto the front lines to save masterworks from the Nazis during World War II. These seven academics-turned-soldiers risked their lives in an attempt to retrieve countless influential pieces from the clutches of the Nazis and the art-loving Fuhrer, who planned to build a museum out of his stolen goods. They also worked with the Allies to try to prevent other pieces and sculptures from being destroyed in the heat of battle. What they managed to save is remarkable.
There's a thrilling cinematic experience to be had out of can't-miss material like that. But while "Monuments Men" lights a few sparks here and there, it fails to catch fire.
Clooney, who also co-wrote, directed and co-produced, plays Frank Stokes, the leader of the group. Stokes, an art historian, has the ear of FDR and convinces him to greenlight an unlikely team of nonsoldiers, including an architect (Bill Murray, a scene stealer), on an art-saving mission. After a bit of basic training, they arrive in Europe in the hopes of curbing the destruction of pieces and historical structures and rescuing art that's been looted by the Nazis.
Other top-brass actors enlisted to play members on Stokes' team include Oscar-winners Jean Dujardin and Matt Damon, along with John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville. In a small but pivotal role, Cate Blanchett, another Oscar winner, plays Claire Simone, a wary French art curator who's observed much and knows even more. As usual, Blanchett makes good use of every moment she's on screen.
But despite these good performances and a few outstanding scenes -- from a smartly done interrogation sequence to a somber one in which the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" evokes the bitter reality of a soldier's life -- "The Monuments Men" feels routine. Other times, it comes off uneven, as it inserts rote and flat comedy into drama.
Clooney says he viewed "Monuments" not as a war picture, but a heist film. And that might be part of the problem -- this just isn't the right subject matter for another "Oceans" lark.
What "Men" does possess is a commendable passion for expressing how important art is to every culture, a subject thoroughly warranting our attention and applause. Unfortunately, there are so many speeches and conversations that the topic gets restated, reframed and repurposed over and over. We get it.
That and the fluctuating tone point to problems with the screenplay, co-written by Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov. Unlike their right-on-target "Good Night, and Good Luck," this adaptation of the praised book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter takes more of a fictional approach, creating characters with different identities and storylines than the real "Monuments Men." To be fair, the duo did this out of respect for the real characters, which is a noble gesture.
In fact, "The Monuments Men" has many good intentions. It's just unfortunate that it didn't have more spirit and a steady sense of what it should be.
(for some images of war violence and historical smoking)
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville
Director: George Clooney
1 hour, 50 minutes