Films in the 1950s weren't actually like The Monuments Men, were they?
George Clooney's new star-studded film wants you to think of classic ensemble WWII pictures like The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen.
Or rather it hopes you will mistake The Monuments Men for one of them.
It has the familiar opening recruitment scene, where Clooney's character walks around town and tips his hat to his buddies to join his motley crew to a jolly horn-and-whistle tune. It features an affable cast (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban) and a worthwhile story to tell (an over-the-hill group of art lovers enlist to recover some of Western Civilization's most iconic art, which was stolen by the Nazis).
The mission is so important that Clooney, via voice-over, feels the need to spell it out to the audience every half an hour or so. Even when his team starts taking bullets, Clooney's Lt. Frank Stokes remains steadfast in his assertion that yes, a piece of art like the Ghent Altarpiece is worth the risk of American lives. The movie barely considers that conflict, as Stokes and the rest of the characters are so bland and underdeveloped that they seem to just have one motivation: Find that art!
Damon finds himself in a decidedly un-sexy tete-a-tete with a museum curator with trust issues played by Cate Blanchett. Goodman is stale. Dujardin had more meaningful lines in The Artist than he does in this one. Murray is half-asleep, and not in the good "half-asleep BIll Murray" way.
Aside from Bonneville and his alcoholism, there's nothing distinctive about these characters aside from their famous faces and their unfunny attempts to banter with each other. It's awkward to watch a scene with a soldier bleeding to death (sappily set to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") and then transition to one where Murray and Balaban trade awkward insults like they're in a low-action version of The Expendables.
It's worrisome when a movie gets pushed back from December (the heart of Oscar season) to February (film wasteland). The ingredients from The Monuments Men never came together to form anything worthwhile, and actually served to counteract the very purpose of the film.
Clooney (who's directed well before in Good Night and Good Luck and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) never infuses the story with appropriate wonder for the artifacts the Monuments Men wish to save. The question many soldiers (and F.D.R.) have for Stokes is "Is this worth it?" And he never gives us a decent answer.
Rated PG-13 for images of war violence and historical smoking.
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