"The Monuments Men" is a movie with an ambitious plot, an ambitious cast, and an ambitious pedigree, which by all rights should be a brilliant historical drama. Instead it is a muddled, often dull, and a mess more bloated than Hermann Goering. It is the hardest kind of movie to ultimately review, something that very nearly works, but fails so clearly and utterly. I am like the poor English executioner that has to set Joan of Arc ablaze. She's a nice girl, well-spoken for a peasant, meant-well. But she's still a French symbol of resistance and a heretic, and she's not going to set herself on fire, is she? So now I have to put the torch to George Clooney's bonfire. He really did to himself: he had plenty of time to figure out the tone and sort out his disparate story threads into a unified whole, but he didn't. I like George Clooney, I want to like this movie. But Clooney isn't going to tell the world not to see this movie, is he? Its time to cook some hot dogs on his charring corpse and tear this movie down.
The overall plot of "The Monuments Men" is actually an interesting element of World War II that is rarely brought up in popular culture or even considered: the battle for European cultural artifacts plundered by the Nazis to pay for their empire*. As Allied bombers were smashing Europe into bits, it became clear that the Allies needed a more organized policy to protect art and creative works that had been stolen by Adolf Hitler's cronies. "The Monument's Men" focuses on the most marketable part of the story: a ragtag team of artists and scholars led by George Clooney to hunt down stolen treasures before they were forever lost to history. At its most banal, it could have been a 1940s "Ocean's Eleven", a fun heist movie with a historical backdrop. At its most dramatic, it could have been one of the best movies of 2014.
Obviously however, throughout the filming of "The Monuments Men", nobody actually knew what kind of movie they were trying to make. They wound up making many of the same mistakes as last year's historical disaster, "Gangster Squad", though not as severe. The cast and story is too jumbled, at times it feels like George Clooney was directing six or seven movies at once, then threw them into a blender. It jumps between silly comedy, old-timey Hollywood adventure, Oscarbait drama, and action beats, all without ever coming into a cohesive whole. The problem with movies is that they cannot simply be the sum of their parts: they have to be devised together into a coherent story, or otherwise you'll be wasting good parts by throwing them next to mediocre scenes. And that's exactly the problem we have here. A couple scenes are downright genius, many are merely forgettable, and some are so hopeless as to be painfully boring.
I really wish I could come forward and say I was wrong when I thought that "The Monuments Men" being delayed into February was an omen of doom, but it turns out, I was exactly right. The movie was delayed two months theoretically to tighten up the script and fix the tone, and unfortunately, that has not worked. I suspect the real reason Clooney and his studio bosses moved the movie into February was to save themselves the embarrassment of trying to have something this broken compete with a solid work of style and confidence like "The Wolf of Wall Street". It would be like sending a fifteen-year-old Hyundai with a flat tire and a cracked windscreen to drag-race a factory-fresh Lamborghini Aventador.
With stars this spangled, the assumption seems to be this movie
would just work on its own.
The casting and characterization of this movie is over-confident. With George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, and French "The Artist" lead Jean Dujardin, this movie is not lacking in the cosmic power of world famous stars. Unfortunately the script is depressingly underwritten, leaving most of the characters entirely unestablished, running mostly on the assumption that the audience would be sympathetic to these characters because they're played by veteran actors who have been on the silver screen for decades, or because they were on "Roseanne". Nobody really has a backstory, or for that matter, much personality beyond what the actors themselves bring naturally. There are almost no character arcs to be found anywhere, no complex relationships, and really no chemistry beyond the happy mood of a group of actors on vacation in France**. If they had hired relative unknowns with less charisma, the entire movie would have crashed in seconds. Instead these men keep the film afloat for a good while, until the poor-engineering of the script send them plunging into the deep.
Look, George Clooney is the coolest human being on the planet. If he's in a movie, he's going to be charming and entertaining, no matter what. But simply being likable is not enough to make a movie.
Worse, there is hardly any plot to speak of. Most of the movie has the Monuments Men separating into various teams, going off into different directions, and then somehow things occasionally just happen. The movie tries to avoid turning itself into an extremely dumb, unrealistic action film by avoiding creating a major villain or a singular "big heist" that the cast has to complete, but in doing so, it means that "The Monuments Men" never actually adds up to anything at all. Events kind of putter around. Things just happen, often randomly - not because of character choice or brilliant actions by our heroes, but because they either got lucky or the production team got bored and wanted to finally move on. I hate to say that a movie that generally has a solid historical pedigree should have been more Hollywood - but a stupid Hollywood movie would have been much more fun than this.
Somewhere Indiana Jones is shooting Nazis to save the Holy Grail.
We get to watch these dusty old men instead.
In all fairness, there are a few scenes that actually work, and in some cases work brilliantly. The British member of the team dies valiantly fighting for a Michelangelo sculpture in Bruges while he narrates over a letter he wrote to his father. That was good. Then there's a scene where Bill Murray gets a recording from his daughter and granddaughter in the states, who sing him an amazingly well-performed Christmas carol. Again, brilliant. Let's ignore for a second that none of those relationships were established and those side-characters never actually appear, but it works.
But there are many more elements that do not work in any form. Matt Damon spends a good hour trying to get Cate Blanchett, a French resistance spy in the art world, to finally reveal where the art is hidden. Her refusal to tell her stories has all the energy of a traffic jam. It gets far far worse when they have an almost romance, which was easily the low-point in terms of energy. If this scene was meant to inspire in the audience an overwhelming urge to sigh bitterly and check their watches, then I suppose it worked. "The Monument's Men" also ends on a terribly false race against Evil Russians trying to steal the art as booty, which never has any tension and turns out to be mostly a manipulation of editing. The Russians were never close and there never was anything to rush over.
-- "This is really the script, George?"
-- "Take another drink, it will look better in a minute."
Again, the real shame is that this is a history movie that's actually pointing the audience in a direction that they have probably never even imagined was a factor in the Second World War. Hitler did not want to destroy Western Europe, he wanted to take its culture for himself, to rule its past and thus control its future. He was a failed painter*** who thought he knew something of art and culture - and his fat crony Hermann Goering was even worse. It was a legitimate battle to win back all the treasures that the Nazis stole, some of which have still never been found. Of course, the Monuments Men were probably fighting on the wrong front in terms of cultural protection. Hitler liked France and Italy, he detested the Slavs and Eastern Europe, and had no interest in leaving any of its culture standing. Despite that, this is a movie that was worth making with a story that was worth telling. Unfortunately it failed.
I suppose if you're looking for easy thrills, have a very low critical eye, and just want to watch handsome George Clooney be handsome for a few hours, "The Monuments Men" will be enjoyable to you. But even then, you're going to have to overcome a high tolerance for boredom, and I dare you to remember that this movie existed even a week from now. The ambition was high, the heart was in the right place, but this was a movie from its very conception that never could have worked. It requires a full re-tool right from the core. You might have talented actors, a decent director, fine cinematography, and a great concept, but if you have a movie without much character, no energy, and no tone, it can never work. And that is almost as much of a tragedy as the German destruction of Picasso's and other artifacts that this film depicts.
* Adolf Hitler's economic policy was pretty much: put everybody to work by spending like a maniac on building a war machine and then conquer the world. His long-term economic policy was non-existent, his plan seems to be that eventually he would have conquered enough of the world that he would have acquired enough booty to pay for his debts. I've actually read some very convincing arguments that Hitler only went to war in 1939 because he could not afford peace time any more, Germany would have collapsed into economic ruin at the rate it was spending if the war was delayed much longer. The 1941 invasion of Russia was set in motion to delay the inevitable collapse of such a stupid economic policy.
** It is almost as bad as "Ocean's 12" where George Clooney got a major studio to spend a hundred million dollars to film his vacation with his A-list actor buddies, and then tortured audiences everywhere with the results. Both movies have this floaty, rambling quality, as if they were made without scripts, and the camera crew just followed the actors where ever they wanted to hang out, and then somebody wrote up a weak storyline to explain it all.
*** Not a very good painter, mostly did landscapes without inspiration. He was a better painter than a writer though, as "Mein Kampf" is essentially unreadable. And he was a better writer than a world leader, otherwise he would not have been so amazingly stupid as to think he could have won that war, or even gotten close.