Is the story if the real-life, World War II-era Monuments Men one worth telling? Without a doubt. Is this George Clooney-directed and -co-written film about this team the way it should have been told? Probably not. THE MONUMENTS MEN is something of a tonal cluster-frick that can't decide whether it wants to be "Hogan's Heroes" or something far more serious.
This story about an international group of largely middle-aged art historians, curators and architects who must go into Europe (often behind enemy lines, although Germany is basically retreating at this point) to both locate and save precious works of art that the Nazis stole and are hiding, as well as keep the Allied forces from destroying the wrong buildings and artifacts as they advance and liberate the continent, is a remarkable and important one.
The point is made more than once that to destroy a country's art history is to destroy its culture and achievements, so the significance of this European treasure hunt was not lost on me. But Clooney and frequent co-writer/producer Grant Heslov (working from a book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter) never miss an opportunity to insert a joke or light moment into their screenplay, and each time they do, it undercuts the inherent drama of the overall mission. I'm not saying the film shouldn't have some levity, but it's a bumpy ride through this tale of saving some of history's greatest works.
Clooney casts himself as Frank Stokes, the man put in charge of the Monuments Men, consisting of such players as Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville ("Downton Abbey") and Jean Dujardin (THE ARTIST, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET). It's an uphill battle for the team as they encounter resistance to their mission even from their own forces, who don't seem to like being told they can't blow up whatever buildings they want. But the real mission is finding these large stashes of missing paintings and sculptures, a task for which they must enlist the help of a French woman (Cate Blanchett) who worked in the Nazi office in Paris that sent various artworks to their hiding places. She is considered a collaborator by many, but Damon's James Granger believes she was secretly part of the Resistance and might be able to help his cause.
And here's a classic example of what's wrong with THE MONUMENTS MEN. Rather than simply have Damon and Blanchett work as a team to local this art, the script inserts a dull and predictable potential love story that brings what little action there is to a grinding halt. Far more interesting are moments when the team gets its hands a little dirty interrogating prisoners about these secret stashes of art. The moments when they locate something precious are some of the film's best, and the very thought of them cataloging the tens of thousands of works at each location seems unfathomable, let along getting them back to their rightful owner nations.
There are a few more human moments that also work in THE MONUMENTS MEN, such as a scene in which Damon accidentally steps on an unexploded landmine, allowing his comrades with engineering degrees to attempt a rescue of sorts. But the problem with the scene is that it feels manufactured for the film, and while I'm sure things like this happened quite often during World War II, they way it's executed here feel phony. Do we really believe all of the Monuments Men would stand right by Damon as a sign of support as he steps off the mine? That makes no sense on so many levels, especially when you consider how much of their mission they still have to carry out at that point.
The team suffers losses, both human casualties and works of priceless art (the Nazis apparently had a burn-as-you-leave policy toward the nations they'd conquered). There's a running plotline involving the retrieval of Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges, which one of the team died to protect. The way that thread plays out borders on laughable, and I don't believe for a second that it's in any way accurate. I'm assuming the purpose was to heighten the drama of its discovery, but I had to resist the temptation to laugh out loud at the execution.
THE MONUMENTS MEN is Clooney's fifth film as a director, and while it doesn't collapse into inanity the way 2008's LEATHERHEADS did, it doesn't even come close to reaching the greatness of CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND or GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. (THE IDES OF MARCH is a toss-up; I liked it more than most, but I acknowledge its deficiencies.) Some of the individual performances here are good. Murray, Balaban and Blanchett are by far the most convincing, while Dujardin's performance seems the most period appropriate, but he excels in seeming like he's from another time.
Strangely enough, it's old friends Clooney and Damon who seem the least interested in the task at hand. I wouldn't say they were sleepwalking through the film, but there's nothing especially interesting or memorable about the way they move through a scene or interact. I'd love to see a documentary about the Monuments Men, because I bet their real-life adventures equal or trump anything set forth in this drab, distancing work. I don't know how you assemble a creative team and cast like the one in THE MONUMENTS MEN and fall short, but that's exactly what's happened.