After an impressive batting average as a producer (Argo, Syriana), star (Up in the Air) and director (Good Night, and Good Luck, The Ides of March), George Clooney takes a swing and misses with The Monuments Men, in which he serves as co-writer, director and star. This ambitious drama follows a team of middle-aged art experts sent to Europe in the last years of the Second World War to attempt to rescue and return millions of pieces of priceless artworks from Nazi hands.
Based on the non-fiction book by Robert Edsel, the story of these bookish types and curators joining the American army following the German army’s retreat is a fascinating one, but the high-minded message about preserving Western civilization often feels at odds with the movie’s half-hearted heist-flick approach. From stock wartime scenes, to Alexandre Desplat’s generic score, Clooney’s film is a hybrid of a war-movie homage (The Great Escape, The Guns of Navarone), and one of the star-studded Oceans Eleven caper flicks. By the film’s end, one can’t help thinking that the story would be better served by a well-researched documentary on the real-life MFAA division (monuments, fine arts and archives.) Clooney plays the ringleader, Frank Stokes (based on the real-life art conservationist George Stout) who, in 1944, gets the go-ahead from Franklin Delano Roosevelt (heard but not seen) to assemble a team to advise commanders on the front and try to retrieve the millions of artworks which Hitler had taken for his planned Fuhrermuseum in his hometown of Linz, Austria.
The team includes New York art curator James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), a French art instructor and dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), historian Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and British academic and recovering alcoholic, Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville). Along with the seven art experts is a Jewish-German youngster named Sam (Dimitri Leonidas) who’s on hand to translate and drive.
Once introduced though, these characters are barely developed and for a gang of aesthetic eggheads, the Monuments Men show surprisingly little interest in art or culture, as they quip their way across Europe. Nor is their expertise ever called for, beyond basic literacy: In one scene, Balaban’s character recognizes a painting’s source is a certain collection because the name “Rothschild” is written on the back; in another a frame bears the name “Pablo Picasso.”
Although two artworks get some particular attention – Michelangelo’s sculpture Madonna of Bruges, and the 15th-century Ghent Altarpiece, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck – most of the time, Stokes’s morale-building speeches stick to Western art’s greatest hits: “Who will make sure the statue of David is still standing, the Mona Lisa still smiling?” he asks.
Ultimately, The Monuments Men would have to be a lot more, or a lot less, reverent to have the impact Clooney intended. Instead of one major heist, we have a series of encounters, big and little discoveries, and a lot of familiar war-movie moments. There’s some strained comic play between Balaban’s fusspot historian and Murray’s laid-back architect, and a long sequence that’s the equivalent of the old letter from home: That comes with an extended sentimental scene when Murray’s character listens to a home recording of his granddaughter singing the Judy Garland hit Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. As well, Damon’s character is saddled with a running gag about his bad French (rendered in fractured subtitle) and a romantic subplot with a prim French curator (a disappointingly stilted Cate Blanchett) who somehow falls for the unsophisticated Yankee.
In the end, the lofty speeches about art and the familiar war scenes simply don’t deliver insight or emotional punch. While Clooney’s script raises the serious question of whether any work of art is worth a human life, The Monuments Men does nothing dramatically to make the question compelling.