The mystery of why George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” was moved from its original December 2013 release date to the first weekend of February has been answered. Unfortunately, it’s not a good answer. The film proves to be at home in the usual sludge of February movies; a major disappointment for a once perceived Oscar contender. Despite its stellar cast, you never really get to know the characters. Despite an incredible true story, the narrative feels messy and never fully realized. Despite all of its best intentions, the movie falls flat.
The film is based on a group of artists that are tasked by the U.S. government to track down and return stolen art from the Nazi’s as World War II is drawing to a close. While it provides a unique twist, “The Monuments Men” lacks many qualities of previous war films, chiefly the dramatic feel of war. The main characters are always coming in on the coattails of battles or cities that the Nazi’s recently vacated. Not to say I expected these artists to be in full fledge combat, but the horrors of war and loss of human life could have been an appropriate juxtaposition from their own mission. The film felt more like a romp through the European countryside than a war film.
There is one sequence that come close, and is the standout of the entire film. As a number of the Monuments men are encamped at a base while the Battle of the Bulge is going on, Bill Murray’s character receives a recorded message from home, though he has no immediate way to listen to it. Bob Balaban’s character takes the message and plays it over the camp radio. The message is from Murray’s daughter and grandchildren who sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” While that plays, George Clooney’s character is in a medical tent helping to attend to a young soldier. This is the emotional high point of the film, unfortunately it comes halfway through and it never comes close in the remaining hour.
A big reason for that is these characters are not truly known to the audience. We find out so little about their lives back home and even their own interactions are so minimal between themselves. Two characters die, and rather than be able to let the moments stand, the film must rely on voiceovers of why their death’s are sad to attempt to get that emotion across. It is a problem with a big ensemble of course, but for this film to have worked the audience at least had to care about the men as much as they did the art.
Another problem brought up by the big ensemble, is that they all have their own narratives and all those narratives primarily take place in different locations. Only about a quarter of the film is the full group together striving for one goal. These other narratives never feel connected, and very few of the individual scenes truly add to the greater narrative. When something like that happens, the end result turns into a pretty boring movie.
“The Monuments Men” never knew what it wanted to be either. It’s not a drama, as mentioned above our emotions aren’t invoked enough for that to be the case. It’s not a comedy, outside of a line or two all the jokes fall incredibly flat. At best it is a two-hour history lesson on some of the world’s most incredible pieces of art, but you only actually see the art for about five minutes and the rest is filler.
The release date of “The Monuments Men” in the end was irrelevant, the movie simply is not very good. The canvas was too large for Clooney and his team to make something special. In a film that emphasizes the importance of art and its impact on history and culture, “The Monuments Men” adds nothing to the art of cinema and will quickly fade away from memory.
(This review first appeared on lenoirauteur.com)