‘The Monuments Men’ Review

Shambolic and slipshod but still barely watchable thanks to stellar cast

Monuments Men
• February 7, 2014 5:00 am


The Monuments Men suffers from a number of problems. Its characters are prone to speechmaking and repetitiously intoning their belief in the importance of art. To say the film is episodic would be kind; shambolic is probably the more appropriate word. There is no sense of spatial awareness, as the chaps are sent hither and yon, spreading throughout Europe, then reconnecting, then fanning out again without any discernible pattern. Keeping track of who is where at any given time is almost impossible.

But the movie’s biggest sin is a complete and utter lack of dramatic tension. There’s very little sense of conflict. The titular men spend some time trying to figure out where the Nazis have taken tens of thousands of pieces of classic stolen art. Then they figure it out and go get the art. The issue is never really in question, and even the occasional killing of a protagonist feels perfunctory, little more than a plot device to hammer home the fact that art is Very Important.

The film opens as the Allied invasion of Normandy has begun. Frank Stokes (George Clooney, who cowrote and directed) pitches Franklin Delano Roosevelt on a plan to save the great masterworks of Western civilization from the Nazis, who are stealing Rembrandts and Rodins at the direction of the Führer. The failed painter, it seems, plans on building a massive museum in his hometown to warehouse the great works pilfered from his conquests.

Stokes asks permission to assemble a team of art experts, send them to the front, and return what has been stolen from museums and private collectors alike. Permission granted, Stokes assembles a crew that would make Danny Ocean blush. There’s James Granger, a director at the Met (Matt Damon); Richard Campbell, an architect in Chicago (Bill Murray); Walter Garfield, expert sculptor (John Goodman); Preston Savitz, who appears to be an authority on ballet (Bob Balaban); Donald Jeffries, a disgraced Brit looking for salvation (Hugh Bonneville); and Jean Claude Clermont, a painter and a Frenchman who wishes he were a fighter pilot (Jean Dujardin). Along the way they pick up help from Claire Simon (Cate Blanchett), a French museum director accused of collaboration with the Nazis.

The Monuments Men’s cast is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. With so much talent—the actors have combined for five wins and 17 nominations at the Academy Awards—the cast can’t help but be entertaining and entrancing, especially when they are all together. But, when so many great actors appear in the same picture, there is the temptation to give them all roughly equal screen time, needs of the narrative be damned.

That appears to be what happened here. Instead of finding one character on which to focus—perhaps Bonneville’s Brit, whose crimes against high society we never even learn, lessening the impact of his supposed redemption in the eyes of his father—we are instead treated to a series of vignettes, brief sketches in which Damon and Blanchett are allowed to flirt, and Murray and Balaban are allowed to snipe. These moments are all entertaining enough, but the whole is far less than the sum of its parts.

It seems clear that Clooney and cowriter Grant Heslov weren’t quite sure how to handle the Nazis’ other, non-art-related crimes against humanity. We are treated to grand speeches about the importance of art and the heritage of the West, and about how saving the paintings of the old masters is a key to maintaining civilization. Yet when it comes to the Holocaust, we are simply asked to gaze in horror.

One brief example: Stokes and his team come across a cache of destroyed art. Flamethrowers have reduced once-grand paintings to a pile of ash. One of the Monuments Men mournfully shows a charred frame with the nameplate "Pablo Picasso." Then, in the very next shot, we see one of the fellows pop off the top of a barrel. In it resides thousands of tiny, glittering lumps of gold: the gold teeth of Hitler’s victims. There is stunned silence.

The scene is at best awkward, and at worst grotesque. There must have been a way to less clumsily integrate a lesson on the Holocaust into a buddy comedy.

Published under: Movie Reviews