The Monuments Men has been doing reasonably well in the several weeks it has been in release. Likely because as we wallow in the doldrums of the early months of the year, it’s pretty much the only option out there for adults looking for something classy to watch (if they’ve already seen all of the Oscar nominees.) This movie has all of the ingredients of an Oscar nominee. There’s a star-studded cast that should appeal to sophisticated film lovers of all kinds. It takes place during World War II. It has a preachy message that can be applied as well today as it could during the film’s time period. But unfortunately, Oscar-bait ingredients are really all the film has; which should explain why the film was suddenly pushed back until now when it originally was intended to be released in time to compete in the Oscars.
The film tells the story of a group of men who have made it a mission to go behind enemy lines to recover and protect lost artifacts that have been stolen by the Nazis. The film is told in flashback by George Clooney’s character (of course), so we’re constantly reminded through his offscreen narration how valuable it is to our society and our sense of identity that such art is preserved. Voice over narration is a crutch that is abused far too often in Hollywood films, and here it becomes such a nuisance that it robs a number of scenes of their emotional impact. Sorry to get spoilery here, but when one of our monuments men gets shot and killed, the opportunity for a genuinely emotional moment gets severely diluted when out of nowhere the action onscreen slowly mutes and we’re treated to another speech by Clooney emphasizing the importance of the mission.
This problem permeates most of the film in that there’s no sense of immediacy. It meanders at a languid pace essentially moving from one mini-setpiece to another. This would be fine if the scenes were interesting, or if the characters were well-developed, but only seldomly does this happen. Other than Clooney, perhaps, being considered “the leader” virtually all of the rest of the characters are nearly interchangeable. Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin are all actors who I have tremendous respect for but, with the occasional exception of Murray, none of them are called upon to do anything of interest.
Potentially interesting scenes begin, but are over within minutes before any real tension occurs. A scene where Matt Damon accidentally steps on a landmine has been used extensively in the film’s promotional campaign. But the scene is over in four minutes. No tension is set-up. We see Damon standing there, we see the men find him, and immediately it’s a jump-cut to them having more or less solved the problem. There’s a scene where a German officer points his gun at Balaban’s character; a potentially life-threatening situation. Bill Murray comes along and manages to subdue him in a matter of seconds. If you’re not going to do anything interesting with a scene, why bother putting it in the film at all?
The best scene in the movie comes early on when Clooney brings an unnamed soldier into a medical facility. The soldier has been shot. The medic takes a look at him and assures him that he’ll be fine. Not long afterwards, the medic tells his assistant to send in the chaplain, yet still maintains that the wounded man will be fine. This is intercut with Bill Murray unexpectedly receiving a recorded message of his granddaughters singing a tender, painfully melancholy a’capella rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” It’s lovingly constructed sequence that for a few minutes actually allowed me to, you know, feel something. Other than this, the film is mostly permeated by a sappy, traditional score by Alexandre Desplat that all but demands for us to give a military salute to this group of actors right there on the screen. I don’t think more than five minutes ever go by in the picture without that rousing music smacking us in the face. It screams “50s World War II movie” in the worst possible way. And then George Clooney starts narrating again.
The Monuments Men never reaches a level of “bad,” just bland and mediocre. You can feel the seed of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in a number of scenes, but where that film consistently provided us with scenes that engrossed, captivated and terrified us for sometimes as long as 20 straight minutes, The Monuments Men finds easy solutions and moves right on forward, marching towards recovering the next painting with the next group of interchangeable characters. It’s pleasant, straight-forward, unchallenging, and unlike the multitudes of fine paintings and sculptures that it salutes, ultimately forgettable.
Grade – C