It’s a shame that The Monuments Men wasn’t released over the holidays as was originally intended. Complete with a touching Christmas Eve scene (that really feels out of place in early February), its crowd-pleasing story and star-studded cast would have played well to a broad audience and would have offered a better alternative to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 47 Ronin, and Grudge Match.
Whether or not George Clooney’s claim that the film wasn’t finished on schedule is credible, the product at hand isn’t nearly as bad as many feared upon news of the delay. The result is a safe WWII story of some artistically-inclined Americans and a few like-minded Allies uniting to both reclaim stolen art before the Nazis can destroy it and keep U.S. soldiers from bombing places that are housing these treasures. That it’s an upbeat, fact-based tale doesn’t hurt, even if Clooney’s bland direction, Alexander Desplat’s exaggerated patriotic score, and characters who can do no wrong tarnish the goods.
After a recruitment scene straight out of Ocean’s Eleven, but with almost comically less resistance by the recruited, art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) assembles Met curator James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and fellow historian Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). In England for a basic training sequence that, considering the talent and many’s borderline retiree status, should be funnier than it is, they meet up with Stokes’ recovering alcoholic English friend Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and French art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin).
Scenes of this cinematic Murderer’s Row all together are few as the team is portioned into two pairs (Murray and Balaban; Goodman and Dujardin) with the rest running various solo missions, including Granger seeking information from Parisian museum curator Claire Simone (a mousy Cate Blanchett). While this Ocean’s approach would appear to foster greater understanding of each individual, The Monuments Men doesn’t follow through on that promise. The focus of Clooney and Grant Heslov’s script is firmly on the mission (the whole “no ‘I’ in ‘team’” thing), though for the most part there are enough obstacles and discoveries for the film to skate by without much character identity.
Indeed, the focus on locating the art and dealing with a few military encounters along the way keeps the story churning and yields neat moments such as the team arriving at a quiet Normandy a month after D-Day. There’s also the occasional solid chuckle, namely via Damon’s inability to speak French, but the surprising flatness of Murray and Balaban’s scenes and other comedic misfires hint at problems beyond the cast. To the film’s credit, nearly each time the action starts to lose its pep, something unusual happens to reignite interest, yet with the players involved the quality shouldn’t be so inconsistent.
Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking.
The Monuments Men is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.