The Monuments Men – A Review

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I have basically zero artistic ability. I can draw well enough that I am not a total burden to my teammates in Pictionary, but otherwise I’m pretty much a lost cause. I doodle the same things over and over in notebooks (a frog, hearts, daisies and interlocking boxes) not because I love these things but because they are about the extent of my capabilities. And even the frog isn’t very good. In middle school I was able to boonswoggle my way into being invited to the advanced art class because they mistook my constant tinkering with an art project as dedication rather than the fact that I was stalling when I had the realization that this was probably the best thing I was ever going to do. I accepted – it earned me credits for high school and as a kid that worried about academics, you don’t turn down advanced placement in anything – but I spent the whole class nervous that I was going to be found out as an artistic fraud.

Perhaps because I don’t possess much artistic ability, I have long been an appreciator of the arts. I may be relegated to drawing stick people, but I can recognize true artistic beauty when I see it. Even before that middle school art class, I was a fan of Impressionism; the class field trips to area museums only served to broaden my artistic palate and introduce me to different styles and artists. Whenever my family would visit Washington D.C., I would always force everyone to go to the National Gallery just so I could wander around and take it all in. When I visited Prague with friends, one of my favorite parts of an unquestionably awesome trip was our stop at the Mucha museum; I didn’t buy a lot of souvenirs on that trip, but I carefully brought several Alphonse Mucha prints home with me. The Art History department at my college even made a pitch for me to become an art history major after I took their intro class, but the career prospects didn’t seem too appealing to me (nor did the idea of telling my father that he and my mother were paying a lot of tuition for an art history degree; I can’t imagine that would have gone over well).

So when I first heard about the film The Monuments Men, the premise of the film naturally was appealing to me. As someone who believes in the importance of art, the story of a group of men who were tasked with trying to prevent artistic masterpieces from being destroyed during World War II was something that I wanted to learn more about. Add in a spectacular cast (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonnevill and Bob Balban) and my interest was further piqued; that’s a lot of Academy Award nominees and winners assembled in one movie. Add in that Clooney also directed and I was legitimately psyched for this film to come out…..

Until they moved the release until February.

As a rule, good movies don’t come out in February. This is the time of year when the studios dump the films that they don’t have a ton of confidence in or that they don’t think will perform well against the stronger competition of movies released in the summer and late fall/early winter. When the release of The Monument Men was delayed, I immediately began to downgrade my expectations. The fact that with a cast this strong that the film was not released during prime awards season eligibility had to mean something….and probably not something good.

Sadly, my instincts were right. The real story behind The Monument Men is interesting, but they somehow failed to make an interesting movie. Tonal inconsistency and a lack of clear focus resulted in a film that was mildly amusing, but mostly boring and that did not take full advantage of the talent of the cast. The Monument Men could have been so much better, but the end result was just kind of meh. Even with my lowered expectations, I was still disappointed.

The biggest problem with The Monument Men is that it isn’t quite sure what kind of movie that it wants to be – is it a comedy? A drama? A dramedy? The film tries a little bit of everything and in the end is ultimately nothing. There are a few laughs, but not enough to be a true comedy. There are some serious moments, but not enough depth to be a true drama. The serious elements and the comedic moments are not melded well enough to be a successful dramedy. There aren’t smooth transitions between the different tones either. It all felt uneven and inconsistent. Is this a film about the importance of art? The untold casualties of war?  It seems to try to address these topics, but ultimately fails at both. There’s a lot of platitudes about the value of art and Clooney does a lot of speechifying, but they never really stick the landing. For a film that is about men risking (and losing) their lives to save paintings and sculptures, they need to convince the audience that this sacrifice was worth it. Ultimately, they just don’t.

The cast is split up for most of the movie and while this may be what happened in real life, I think that the film tried to cover too much ground in such a short movie. The result is a lot of hopscotching all over Europe, with only a limited amount of time spent with the characters. This scattershot approach means that we know very little about the men who make up the Monument Men; they are just broad character strokes and attributes with very little depth or development. Just when you think you are starting to get an idea about who these characters are, the film jumps to another scene with different characters. Poor Matt Damon feels like he is in a completely different movie than the rest of the gang; he’s off hanging out with Cate Blanchett, who is perhaps the most poorly drawn character of them all. These are gifted performers who do their best, but even this award-winning collective can’t bring these characters successfully to life.

Some other thoughts:

  • There are moments when this film feels like it could be a caper film, a la the Oceans 11 trilogy, but then it rushes through the best part of that genre of film – putting the team together.
  • This film definitely has a throwback vibe; this is a film that could have just as easily been made in the 1950s.
  •  For the young folks – that is George Clooney’s real life father Nick Clooney playing the older version of George’s character.
  • Big tobacco must love this film; not does everyone have a cigarette dangling from their mouth throughout the film, but sharing cigarettes seems to bring enemies together.
  • That being said – for a character that allegedly has never had a smoke before, Clooney’s Frank Stokes takes to it like a pro. Not a cough or a wheeze.

In the end, Clooney and his cronies just didn’t make a very good movie. I have no doubt that they had the noblest of intentions, but The Monuments Men is basically a snooze fest thanks to an overall lack of narrative focus and poorly developed characters. I really wanted to like this film, even with my initial cautiousness, but it failed to deliver even on my lowered expectations. The Monuments Men isn’t a terrible movie – it would probably be perfectly fine to rent or, even better, to watch on cable – but it isn’t worth your time or money at the theater. There’s a lot of talented people involved and an inherently interesting story, but these did not translate to an enjoyable film. Better luck next time, Clooney.

The Monuments Men opens nationwide today.

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