George Clooney's The Monuments Men is about as fun as sitting through a two-hour art history lecture. If that sounds enjoyable to you, then this is a film worth dropping some coin on, but everyone else will probably walk away feeling it's somewhat unexceptional. Clooney, who has always had a fondness for history, whether it's in the entertainment, sports, or political realm, shows his deep passion for priceless works of art and utmost respect for the real life WWII unit tasked with protecting them. But despite an incredible story and an Ocean's Eleven-inspired cast, The Monuments Men is cold and lifeless as a statue.
The problems don't lie with the story, which is adventurous and somewhat unbelievable in the way the best true stories are. It follows the Monuments Men, a unit of art curators and historians tasked by President Franklin Roosevelt to retrieve and protect some of the finest works of art stolen by that art-lovin' fiend, Adolf Hitler. Clooney gets the flattest role of all as Frank Stokes, the leader of the group who, after convincing the President to greenlight his little squad, is pretty much left to his own devices. So he assembles his unit full art geeks, sculptors, and curators, but certainly no combatants which could be a problem out on the battlefield. Bill Murray, John Goodman, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Jean Dujardin make up this squad of misfits, which is put together so hastily that we learn practically nothing of who they are out of uniform.
It's a problem that stretches on as the story takes its odd shape. Almost as soon as the old guys clear basic training, they are immediately separated and sent to different corners of Europe, killing any momentum and the chance to build a believable camaraderie. These missions prove to be extremely random and uninvolved for the most part, and isn't helped by an unsure tone stuck between harsh reality and Clooney's natural flip sense of humor. A look back at the film's somewhat troubled production shows that Clooney has always been concerned about hitting the right tonal balance, and apparently it's something he never quite mastered. The brutality of war too often bangs up against moments clearly meant to be played for laughs, so that when characters pay the ultimate price (it happens on a couple of occasions), it's tough to take seriously despite Alexandre Desplat's tear-jerking score telling us to.
Some of this could be overlooked if there seemed to be any rhyme or reason to the Monument Men's investigations, but there doesn't seem to be. They luck into most of their biggest finds and do very little in the way of research, which is an issue if these are supposed to be the best art minds we can muster for the task. Most of the men don't have any clear goal or sense of direction, and Stokes basically plays centerfield vaguely watching over them all without any direct action. The only one who gets something to work with is Damon as James Granger. Sent to the newly-freed Paris, he meets up with suspicious French rebel Claire Simone, who has been undercover with the Nazis and knows where all the art has been taken. There's a hint of sexual tension as Granger tries to convince her to reveal what she knows, and it's about as close as we get to genuine emotional bonding. She's pretty much the only female in the movie and one can't help but wish she and Damon had a bit more time together to take things further.
Clooney means well, and through soaring speeches he makes the case for the importance of culture, and how it should never be allowed to vanish in the face of war. As a central theme it's one of real value, now more than ever, but it's easy to overlook because the film is such a thudding bore. In his biggest film to date, Clooney presents an authentic version of the period, and really seems to hit on the loneliness of a soldier out on the frontline. His respect for the material and the real people involved sometimes comes off as overly earnest, but let's be honest in that all of Clooney's work has that tendency. It's to Clooney's credit that his passion runs so deep for this little-known piece of our history, but The Monuments Men is no work of art and perhaps would be better off as a documentary or TV series where it can be done proper justice.