BY Gina Tumlos
Despite being the most star-studded film of 2014 so far, The Monuments Men relies mostly on the twinkle of George Clooney’s eyes and on almost nothing else. Early casting news gave The Monuments Men the push it needed to stay afloat on moviegoers’ minds, but when the premiere was pushed to 2014 instead of December 2013, many were suddenly wary as to why Sony and 20th Century Fox were suddenly hesitant to drop it in during awards-baiting season. Turns out it wasn’t just post-production woe that was holding it back—the script itself was problematic too.
The story is based on Robert M. Edsel’s work “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Hunt in History” and was adapted by long-time writing partners Clooney and Grant Heslov, the very same team behind last year’s Argo. The scale was massive: there were more than 300 men and women involved in the recovery mission of millions of artworks during the post-war years, and even now the extent of their effort has not garnered the kind of appreciation it truly deserves. The script, however, reduces the operation to a glossy undertaking which, ironically, involves way more taking than showing, and no amount of melodramatic music can cover up the fact that the movie is no more than a tame, pandering overview of events without any real emotional hook.
Set in 1944 at the tail end of World War II, Clooney’s character, art conservationist Frank Stokes, assembles a ragtag team of artists, curators, and art experts to recover and protect artworks looted by the Nazis from private Jewish collections and museums alike. Stokes calls upon his predominantly middle-aged pals art restorer James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (the ever-affable Bill Murray), theater director Preston Savitz (scene-stealer Bob Balaban), a museum head looking for redemption (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and a former painting instructor Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin, former leading man: in need of a better agent). The pitfall of having such a distinguished cast is that there’s always bound to be at least one underdeveloped character. In this case, there are about six of those and the biggest loser of them all is Dujardin’s Clermont who only becomes significant upon his death. Aside from Stokes and Granger, all the rest feel like mere outlines of drawings with funny thought clouds looming over their heads.
What follows is a Disney-esque montage of their “training” and “encounters” with German and Russian soldiers and a couple of deaths to remind the team of just how much their comrades are willing to sacrifice for the Madonna and the Ghent altarpiece. There are a few golden banters between Murray and Balaban here and there, which after thirty minutes of nothing much going on, quickly becomes the movie’s greatest asset.
In order to cover more ground, the Monuments Men split up into teams with Granger assigned to extract information from Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone, a character based on Rose Valland, the real life curator of the Jeu De Paume museum in Paris who zealously kept track of all works of art that came through and left the museum. Blanchett shows up in only in a few scenes and though more than capable of holding her own in this male-dominated cast, her presence is still not enough to salvage the faltering and monotonous narrative.
Throughout its two-hour running time, the movie fails to rise to action or to evoke any sympathy despite Alexander Desplat’s magnificent musical score. Instead, the movie peaks at such an unexpected moment when the camera closes in on Murray’s face as his tears well up upon hearing his grandchildren sing over the PA system. This isn’t so much as pat on Clooney’s back, but rather a testament to how well Murray can command a scene without even having to open his mouth.
Overall, The Monuments Men is a glossily made, richly scored lighthearted telling of the valorous deeds of the men who saved art from the Nazis. More momentary than momentous, what could have compelling storyline if handled by someone with more grit, this film falls flat of expectations. But if you have nothing else to do this Sunday night, this movie will just have to do.