Look. I love the arts. And this is a FANTASTIC a story about rescuing artistic masterpieces from Nazis and returning them to their owners– I mean, what could be better than that?!! Well, having seen THE MONUMENTS MEN– just about anything. This is one of those hidden chapters of World War II that begs to be revealed. THE MONUMENTS MEN is a true story based on the book by Brett Witter and Robert M. Edsel (ironic foreshadowing of the flop to come?) about a rag tag group of over-the-hill soldiers who went on a mission into Europe and gave their lives–some of them, to save thousands of the world’s greatest artworks from the Nazis! What a story! What a cast: MATT DAMON, GEORGE CLOONEY, JOHN GOODMAN, CATE BLANCHETT, BILL MURRAY! What could go wrong? Just about everything.
This is the stiffest, stodgiest story-telling I’ve seen in a long time. The opening scene is a dilly. Picture George Clooney (who also co-wrote and directed) in a mustache and uniform, looking a little too obviously like Clark Gable (he actually lives in Gable’s old house!). He is standing in a darkened room, slides behind him, pointer in hand, telling this tale in flashback to FDR. We know it’s FDR because we see the top of his head from behind and smoke curling “forties style” from his signature cigarette holder; he’s speaking in a stilted, high-pitched voice. But it sounds nothing like the FDR we know from innumerable recordings– some quite familiar to us; little did he know this feeble impersonation would count as yet another day that would live in “infamy.”
The only thing I had to fear– was watching the rest of this cornball movie. Clooney & co. sleepwalk through their performances as conscripted artists, art historians, art sleuths, art restorers and researchers. We never really get to know them, or what exactly it is that they do. They are essentially character-less, so when they die– and a few of them do– it barely registers. In fact, when they go through basic training, I would have welcomed the pat, slapstick montage of old guys barely able to touch their toes, sweating through basic training– shimmying up barricades or grunting face down through the mud. Instead, there is but one feeble joke involving John Goodman discovering that live ammo was being used in the training exercises.
Later, there’s an awkward/out of nowhere scene involving an oddly-accented (not quite French/not quite German) Cate Blanchett whose character plays a key link in tracking the whereabouts of the pilfered works. She and Damon’s characters must decide whether or not there will be carnal knowledge in addition to the other knowledge they’ve shared. They have absolutely no chemistry. I prayed to god nothing remotely romantic would happen.
In fact, there’s no through line, no dramatic spine, no suspense, no dramatic arc. Instead, there are disjointed episodes, confusing maps, soldiers in jeeps crisscrossing the shape-shifting geography of Europe recoiling from the Germans, and dodging the Russians. There’s an ill-staged showdown over a Madonna in church that’s supposed to stand for motherland, truth, beauty, and all related metaphoria, but has as much resonance as a sock in a drawer. The painful irony is that this film never succeeds in conveying even a hint of the thrill that a work of art might convey, art that might make your head explode or your heart burst; it’s a movie about saving art, in service of art, that is artless.
In the end, there are gassy monologues about art and civilization, culminating in the film’s final, big question posed by the ersatz FDR: “Was it all worth it?” In real life, undoubtedly. But THE MONUMENTS MEN, designed to immortalize this unusual and historically significant undertaking– is a blank canvas. So many stars, so little illumination.