Monuments Men Review: Movie falls short of expectations


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“Monuments Men” should be a good movie, but it isn’t. Directed by mega-star and leading man George Clooney, the film seemingly has everything going for it. For one thing, the cast is superb with stars like Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and the always excellent Bill Murray. backing up Clooney. Pitched as a comedy-drama set in the latter years of World War II, the movie definitely has all the elements to be a great flick, but it all gets muddled up in the execution.

The film opens in 1943 and the war in Europe is in full swing. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of the conflict is that the continent’s vast supply of classic art and architecture is in grave danger, both from bombing and thievery. To make matters worse, Hitler has started hoarding classic art for his own personal collection, the planned “Fuhrermuseum.” We never actually meet the Nazi commander, but he appears obsessing quietly over a model of his museum because apparently a museum is more important than the Allied forces knocking on his door. Naturally all this art thievery and destruction causes great distress among the American academics, in particular Clooney’s character Frank Stokes. To combat the Nazi effort, Stokes assembles a team of fellow art wunderkinds to identify and preserve irreplaceable pieces from the likes of Picasso, Monet and most importantly; the Madonna and Child by DaVinci. Picture a team of potbellied Indiana Jones who discuss art and are never in any real danger and you have the “Monuments Men,” as they call themselves.

Much of the first half of the movie deals with Stokes assembling his team and introducing us to the primary characters; a segment that seems to take entirely too long. The motley squad then goes through basic training and deploys with the army into France, where they go their separate ways in search of all sorts of paintings, statues and the like. Matt Damon’s character embarks on a side quest to Paris to interrogate a curator, played by Cate Blanchett, who may or may not know where the Germans are hoarding the stolen art. That is as much as I am going to reveal about the story, as the second half of the movie has some genuinely interesting moments as we learn more about the search for the art.

While the plot is certainly intriguing, it suffers from a lack of direction. Forty minutes into the movie I was unsure whether it was supposed to be a historical drama, war flick, or comedy. It has elements of all three, but never finds the right balance. One moment we are listening to Clooney intone about the importance of preserving cultures and then suddenly there is a cutaway to bullets flying before returning us to the characters cracking wise. Unfortunately, all this jumping around makes for quite the distraction and detracts from the experience as a whole. For a war movie, there is a noticeable lack of action and much of the drama surrounds the death of a main character that we never really get a chance to know. The comedy works best, with the relationship between Bill Murray and Bob Balaban’s characters as a notable highlight. The two of them are hilarious and I find myself wishing that they could have been featured more. Damon is critically underused, and his budding romance with Blanchett is an irritating distraction from the main events. Clooney, an Academy Award Winning actor, actually takes a backseat to the rest of the characters, and as a result his inspiring speeches as the group’s leader feel flat and unauthentic.  For a film with such a famous ensemble, there is a surprising lack of focus on the group as a whole. The camera switches to a multitude of locations and people but nothing of consequence seems to happen for much of the two hour run time.  A confusing subplot concerning the Russians along with a villain who dissapears halfwya through only adds to the mess.However, many of these issues are resolved in the final hour as the team reunites and we get to see them play off one another, which make for some genuinely entertaining moments.

Despite all of its faults, “Monuments Men” does have quite a few things going for it. For one, all the characters are very likeable and endearing. You will genuinely be rooting for them to defeat the Nazis and recover the stolen goods. The performances are top notch, as expected, and the actors manage to imbue heart into the muddled proceedings. The cinematography is awe inspiring, as Clooney shows both the devastation of war along with the pristine forests and mountains of France and Germany. As aforementioned, the latter section of the movie has some quality moments but it proved too late to save the sheer confusion of it all.

In the end I didn’t hate the movie, I just felt a dull ambivalence towards it. Much like a turkey sandwich, “Monuments Men” has all the ingredients but is ultimately bland and serviceable. It’s a shame, because this movie had the potential to be so much more.