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Review: ‘Monuments Men’ - A fascinating story packaged in a mostly average movie

The Monuments Men

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The Monuments Men, the new film from director-star George Clooney, was originally slated to open in December – right in the thick of award season. And it is easy to see why that release date was chosen, namely the high filmmaker and cast pedigree, plus the Oscar-friendly plotline.

'The Monuments Men'-slide0
Columbia Pictures

But as things often do in Hollywood, the release date was abruptly pushed back to a less crowded early February. Everyone involved claimed the reason for the shift was because Clooney needed more time to tinker with the film. Now you can believe that (which is a certainly plausible situation) or you can be more skeptical and think that maybe the movie just was not up to snuff for the big award season push. Well after seeing the film, it would be easy to say either reason (if not both) could be the culprit.

That is not too say it is bad, but rather, it is just not good as you want it to be or that it should be. The Monuments Men is a fascinating story disappointingly packaged in a mostly average movie. It is still a good time – sure. And with a cast and story like that, how could it not be at least on some level?

The film follows the real life story of “The Monuments Men,” an unlikely platoon of soldiers in World War II made up of artists, architects, and historians tasked with finding, saving, and returning lost pieces of art stolen by the Nazis and spread out across war-torn Europe.

For a story dubbed with the tagline “the greatest treasure hunt in history,” Clooney takes a page out of his Ocean’s Eleven notebook by building a strong, diverse, and highly likeable ensemble cast. The film stars Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, Dmitri Leonidas, and Cate Blanchett.

Each actor is given a moment to shine and some do more with it than others. Interestingly enough, the film’s biggest stars – Clooney and Damon – are given the least, while Blanchett is stuck with yet another in a long line of rather thankless supporting roles and somewhat distracting accents. Most of the cast gets paired off and spread out to different locales during majority of the movie – Dujardin and Goodman have the best chemistry in both humorous and dramatic scenes. Yet, there is one particularly touching scene at The Battle of the Bulge where Bill Murray gives perhaps one the best dramatic moments of his career.

Most disappointing, given the highly affable cast, is that much of the dialogue is forced and many jokes fall flat. It is as if the filmmakers just could not decide on what kind of movie it should be, so they just threw everything – comedy, drama, war – at the screen and hope it stuck. And sometimes it did, really effectively – like the opening which appropriately plays like a 1950s-styled war-comedy. But Monuments Men quickly begins to take itself way too seriously, much to the detriment of the film, its accomplished filmmaker, and its usually enjoyable cast. The film never really finds its footing and never succeeds as any one (or even a combination) of those previously mentioned genres.

As mentioned before, one reason for the release date changed was because Clooney needed more time in post-production. If that is true, then the film must really have been quite a mess before because it still has problems, particularly editing and story-wise. The film just does not appear to be constructed very well. Several scenes are disjointed and pieced together ineffectively.

Now having said all that, the release date change will certainly work in favor of the film. January and February are notorious dumping grounds for sub-par studio films. So with that in mind, The Monuments Men should do good business based on the cast alone and the fact that it is still better than most other new offerings – especially if you have caught up on all the Oscar nominees (the ones that were worthy of that late year push).

* * * out of 5 stars

The Monuments Men opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, February 7 and locally at The Theatres at Canal Place, The Grand at Esplanade in Kenner, and all three AMC Palace theatres (Elmwood, Westbank, and Clearview).

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