The Monuments Men (2014) / War-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and smoking
Running Time: 118 min.

Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Justus von Dohnanyl, Holger Handtke
Cameo: Grant Heslov
Director: George Clooney
Screenplay: George Clooney, Grant Heslov (based on the book, "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History", by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter)

Review published February 10, 2014

While you can't spell "Monuments Men" without the letters to the word "Momentum", it seems you can make a movie called The Monuments Men without any generating it.

Star George Clooney (Gravity, The Descendants) co-writes and directs this semi-fictional adaptation of the nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel about a group of art historians and curators who travel to the European theater of war in World War II in an effort to recover some of the world's most revered works of art, which has been stolen by the Germans in their expansion.  The Germans are ordered to destroy all of this art in the event of Hitler's demise, which, in the waning part of the war, seems imminent.  Clooney plays art historian and would-be savior Lt. Frank Stokes, who earns FDR's approval to create the group to go behind enemy lines and secure as much of the precious art as they can and return them to their owners.  Over the hill and without much military training, the Monuments Men face deadly challenges every step of the way in the most hostile territory on Earth.

Perhaps the biggest draw to The Monuments Men will be its all-star cast, which is a deliberate throwback to the kinds of mission-based war movies (The Great Escape, Bridge on the River Kwai) made in the 1950s and 1960s, from which Clooney seems to be drawing inspiration.  While many of those films are classics of any genre, The Monuments Men only echoes those films.  The visual aesthetic of The Monuments Men is quite good, with some nice cinematography from Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska, This is 40), as well as a keen sense of period in its costumes and locales.  There are also interesting scenes and characterizations thrown in that make for a few fun, irreverent moments you might expect from a Clooney flick.

So, with all of these choice ingredients, why is it not one of the better movies of the year?  Probably high expectations from interested viewers, who are intrigued by its Oceans Eleven-sized all-star cast.  But there are other issues as well, as the film has largely been marketed as a funny film with comedic thespians, and though the tone is relatively light for a war film, there really aren't many big laughs to be found in the story itself.  Plus, there aren't enough moments with any one of these actors to recommend to their fans, whose characters come off as bland and one-note, as the screenplay doesn't much ask for anything but ordinary performances.  And lastly, with the men spread out in various locations, they are limited in the amount of time in which they are seen together as an amusing ensemble.

Many of the problems come from its meandering narrative, which is merely a collection of offshoot cute or poignant scenes that stem off of the main premise.  What's missing is the backbone story from which these scenes are supposed to draw momentum from, rather than these side shows taking up most of the screen time away from the overall arc.  Things do begin to coalesce a bit more in the film's second half, as the men finally get into something that isn't just a character touch, but it'll likely be too late in the game to bring back disinterested viewers who have zoned out from the too-leisurely pacing up to that point.  Another disappointment is that, though the films begins with the boast that it is "Based on a true story", none of the characters we see on the screen are actual people, but rather, streamlined composites drawn from the hundreds who may have worked on the 'Monuments Men' mission at one time or another. 

The Monuments Men has enough going for it in terms of engaging actors and a handful of compelling scenes to make it worthwhile for those interested in the subject matter, but the lack of development in the main plot keeps it from being as good or fun a movie as it might seem from the advertisements.  While it isn't without a certain entertainment value, one would gather that if there were a future time when great works of art from the film world were in need of saving from total destruction, The Monuments Men wouldn't be the sort one might trade their lives to save.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo