Review: 'The Monuments Men'

George Clooney seems to have embraced “They don’t make 'em like this anymore” as his guiding principle behind the camera. “Good Night, and Good Luck” was a well-groomed lecture on McCarthy-era tyranny, “Leatherheads” had its screwball, romantic heart in the right place and “The Ides of March” smuggled a weary post-Watergate cynicism into its present-day tale of political treachery. (His first and arguably best film, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” was the exception to this trend, thanks to the reliably knotty Charlie Kaufman screenplay and a livewire Sam Rockwell performance.)

Clooney’s latest directorial effort, “The Monuments Men,” certainly has all of the proper ingredients for an old-fashioned throwback: a fact-based tale of international art scholars assembled to retrieve stores of Europe’s greatest pieces from retreating German forces and the approaching Russians at the end of World War II; the uneasy cost of a current generation’s lives and future generations’ cherished works; an all-star cast (Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin) assembling for the irresistible men-on-a-mission routine; and a rousing Alexandre Desplat score in the vein of classic military marches.

So why doesn’t it work? “Monuments” certainly isn’t unbearable to watch, but for all its quality pedigree and good intentions, the result is a frustratingly flat film that drifts from moment to moment with a curious lack of urgency and an overbearing sense of self-importance, primarily fueled by speeches, lectures or radio addresses from Capt. Clooney about how only they can accomplish this culturally significant task as towns crumble before them and blowhards in tents refuse to help their orders.

Many of the characters are tidily split off from the group: Damon’s art historian seeks out a particularly knowledgeable secretary (Blanchett) in Paris while Murray and Balaban do the odd couple bit in the French countryside and Hugh Bonneville’s disgraced Brit goes off on his own mini arc of redemption. Each pair is generally assigned a moment or two of levity — Damon and Blanchett have a not-quite-romance; Murray picks on Balaban’s short stature and low rank — usually involving some pat banter, followed by a beat of wartime severity to sober things back up (usually a death that hardly packs a punch or a frustratingly casual allusion to the Holocaust being committed elsewhere). Clooney and co-writer/producer Grant Heslov veer back and forth between character-driven beats which reveal awfully little about each of our soldier boys before reuniting them with or for another round of Why This is Important, You Guys.

With each passing address, Desplat’s score rouses a bit less, and with each new find, we know that the story can’t end until these heroes find two primary pieces of art upon which we’ve been coached to attach our interests, a series of priceless paintings and a sculpture of more sentimental importance. Occasionally, a scene gives us cause to sit up: a civilized dinner table meet-and-greet that nimbly balances humor and tension before ending much too soon; a grave interrogation involving a German officer and a Jewish deli; a much-needed message from home heard over a phonograph. That last scene would have sufficed with its intended audience tearing up in a shower to the strains of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but Clooney cannot resist adding a note of irony by taking us into the infirmary as well. It’s a gesture which speaks volumes to the film’s overall lack of trust in its audience, instead insisting upon us the crucial nature and sometimes uncomfortable reality of such a mission.

For a movie which worships great art, “The Monuments Men” hardly ever embodies it, and to say “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore” is to ignore that yesteryear had its own fair share of noble-yet-stodgy pictures. To say “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore” is to ignore that they already have: John Frankenheimer’s historical thriller, “The Train,” turns 50 this year and tackled similar wartime art preservation with a sharp sense of craft and a vital narrative drive. That film’s final moments, cutting between spilled crates and spent corpses, say more about weighing the worth of great art against the value of human lives — all without saying a single word.

SCORE: 5.9 / 10