Movie Review: 'The Monuments Men'
Published: Friday, February 7, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 21:02
When a film poster promises that its center concept “was the greatest art heist in history,” it certainly raises the stakes on the quality of the movie. Unfortunately for history buffs and Bill Murray fans everywhere, "The Monuments Men," the newest addition to the boundless gallery of World War II films, doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations it sets for itself.
The movie follows the sometimes tragic exploits of a small unit of artistic professionals who joined the U.S. Army during the Allied advance through Europe at the tail end of World War II. Their mission was the unique and twofold — to protect historically significant buildings from Allied bombing and to find the Nazi stashes of Europe’s finest art collections — mostly confiscated from Jewish collectors and the national museums of conquered nations. It’s an aspect of WWII's story that rarely gets told. The work of the Monuments Men was an undeniably significant effort, but unfortunately, the movie doesn’t live up to its fascinating material. Perhaps because art history is one of my main interests, but the entire movie felt like a massive effort by George Clooney — who both wrote and directed the film — to make an "important movie" about art and war in modern society that ultimately fell flat.
The acting is certainly endearing — the image of portly and graying actors like Bill Murray, John Goodman and Bob Balaban going through basic military training alongside fresh-faced 17-year olds was undeniably entertaining — but it is particularly hard to envision baby-faced Matt Damon as an art curator old enough to not have been drafted. He looks as if he hasn’t aged a day since the 1997 film "Good Will Hunting."
The movie has a few major weaknesses, the most grievous of which is the painfully strained attempts to make the film meaningful. There were many naturally poignant moments throughout "The Monuments Men," but most felt almost aggressively heavy-handed and forced. Since the film takes place on the front lines of the Allied offensive, it is virtually inevitable that not all the characters survive to the end of the film, but their deaths are hollow and don’t hold the significance that Clooney obviously strives to express. The film is also all over the place in terms of tone. There were certainly many scenes played for laughs, but the plot would too-often flip 180 degrees to a devastating tragedy just moments later. It was a jarring and confusing experience as a viewer, and it’s difficult to gauge whether you should be laughing or having a different reaction entirely.
A major opportunity that Clooney and company missed was with Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone — a thinly-veiled adaptation of French informant Rose Valland. Her role in the recovery of the works stolen by the Nazis was critical, but her role in the film’s plot felt like it was downplayed in favor of a potential romance between Matt Damon’s (married) Met curator character, James Granger, and her. In real life, without Valland, the Monuments Men would not have been able to save nearly as many works of priceless art. Additionally, her wartime monitoring of German activity was not only mind-blowingly extensive but was extremely dangerous, as well as done right under the noses of some of the most powerful men in the Third Reich. She was smart and savvy and her real story would have been a lot more compelling to watch than the manufactured chemistry between Blanchett and Damon.