The Monuments Men is a disappointing and frustrating WWII caper adventure from director-writer-star George Clooney. It’s especially disappointing because it boasts such a great premise, a swanky cast, scope and production values; it’s frustrating because it plays like six movies in search of a tone. A highly embellished gloss on Robert M. Edsel’s nonfiction book, the film gives us Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban and Dimitri Leonidas as a motley international crew out to salvage great works of art plundered from museums and private Jewish art collectors at the direction of Hitler, who thought these priceless treasures were “degenerate art.”
Says Clooney’s noble but annoyingly pedantic Fogg Art Museum art historian and conservationist character to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and to his own men, “Who will make sure that the statue of David is still standing and the Mona Lisa is still smiling? This is our history. It’s not to be stolen and destroyed. It’s to be held up and admired.” The mostly middle-aged, out of shape guys get put through slipshod basic training played for Stripes-level slapstick, get shoved into ill-fitting uniforms and go parachuting into Europe to save treasures such as Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and Jan van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. For all its good intentions and several terrific scenes, The Monuments Men just never builds up a head of steam. This time, Clooney and Grant Heslov, who earlier collaborated on the sharp, knowing Good Night, and Good Luck, have left the screenplay underwritten and bloodless, its characters too fuzzy and generic.
At least Murray, Balaban and Bonneville manage to fill in the blanks. And considering that the smart, snappy Clooney nurtured the project along, the direction plods and dawdles distractedly. What a puzzlement when the film had every good reason to be a flag-waving, enjoyable, sometimes lump-in-the-throat romp out of The Dirty Dozen or Kelly’s Heroes’ playbook.