When news spread that George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, “The Monuments Men,” wouldn’t be making its original December 2013 release date, many people were surprised, to say the least. After all, nothing sounded more Oscar-ready than a World War II film based on a true story and starring some of Hollywood’s finest actors. Although the studio’s official response on the matter was that Clooney needed more time to finish post-production, it was most likely because “The Monuments Men” just isn’t a very good film. It’s a lot better than most of the dreck that’s forced down our gullets this time of year, but for a movie overflowing with promise, it’s hard not to feel the sting of disappointment.
Clooney stars as Frank Stokes, an American art conservationist who leads a small platoon of experts – including museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), theater director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), French art dealer Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and British professor Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) – into Europe during the final year of World War II. Their mission is to protect various monuments and buildings from being needlessly destroyed by Allied forces, as well as locate and retrieve the Nazi-stolen paintings and sculptures hand-picked for Hitler’s planned Führer Museum. After completing basic training, the men split up to undertake specific assignments across the war-torn continent, with Granger heading to Paris to meet a fellow museum curator (Cate Blanchett) who could be the key to tracking down some of the world’s most important cultural treasures.
Based on the 2009 book by Robert M. Edsel, the real-life story of the Monuments Men is practically tailor-made for the big screen; a unique slant on the typical WWII film that, at least on paper, appeared to be equal parts “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Inglourious Basterds.” Unfortunately, it’s nothing like that at all. The movie is stuck in first gear for most of its sluggish two-hour runtime, and by the time it finally begins to take shape into the film that many were expecting from the start, it’s over. It’s also a giant mess tonally, shuffling back and forth between lighthearted comedy and serious drama with such reckless abandon that you’d think it was a first-time director behind the camera. One minute, the platoon is goofing around as Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty, “Gomer Pyle”-esque musical score plays in the background, and the next minute, Clooney’s character is launching into one of his many monologues about the importance of art. It’s as if the director/star (who also co-wrote the screenplay with longtime partner Grant Heslov) was caught in two minds as to which kind of movie he wanted to make.
That carries over to the screenplay as well, which is packed with so many different subplots that there’s no room for character development. We never get to know any of the men beyond their names and job titles, and they spend so much time apart on side missions that they barely have the chance to interact as an ensemble. In fact, many of the characters aren’t given much to do at all. Murray, Goodman, Dujardin and Balaban are wasted in roles that could have been played by anyone, and while Bonneville gets a decent little arc, even his big emotional scene is undercut by Clooney’s questionable direction. There are some fun character moments throughout – especially the stuff with Murray and Balaban – but it’s not enough to counteract the rather pedestrian nature of the film. “The Monuments Men” is more “Leatherheads” than “Good Night, and Good Luck”; a stark reminder that although Clooney is capable of directing a great movie, he’s much better in front of the camera than behind it.