Back in October, George Clooney announced that his new film, The Monuments Men, would not be ready by its original December, awards-bait release date, and would need to be pushed back until early 2014. Naturally—as Clooney's film was an apparent prestige picture with an all-star cast—the industry media was abuzz with the question of how this surprising change would affect the highly competitive 2013 Oscar race.
Now, that question has been answered unequivocally: the change had no impact on the awards race, because The Monuments Men wasn't going to win any anyway. However, as is so often true in life, the answer to that question just raises an additional, more perplexing question:
How the hell do you take a cast this good, and a premise this promising, and make a movie this bad?
Whether the decision to pull the film from awards season was a happy accident of necessity or a tacit admission of fault, The Monuments Men ended up exactly where it belongs: in the winter dumping ground of films everyone would just as soon—and soon will—forget. Dramatically limp, emotionally empty, and intellectually challenged, The Monuments Men is an artless movie about art, and is itself a monument to nothing but mediocrity.
And it's a shame, because this is a story that's worth telling well. Adapted—quite loosely, it seems—from Robert M. Edsel's book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the film purports to tell the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section, a volunteer group of art historians, curators, and experts tasked with protecting and recovering great works of art during the Second World War. The film finds museum curator Frank Stokes (Clooney) persuading President Roosevelt (Michael Dalton) to assemble a team of experts (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin, and Bob Balaban) to attempt to track down and secure millions of pieces of stolen art seized by the Third Reich. With no budget or support—they can't even get a Jeep—this ragtag, middle-aged band of brothers wanders the European theater of war trying to preserve whatever cultural treasures can be saved.
(In reality, the MFAA was composed of some 350 people from thirteen Allied nations—not one of whom, it should be noted, shares a name with a character in this film. But what the hell: it's a movie.)
Though the true story of the individuals who worked (and died) to secure the artistic legacy of Europe deserves to be told—and though this film is arguably an insult to their efforts and memories—the problem with The Monuments Men is not that the story has been fictionalized for the purposes of making a movie. Any number of good movies could have been made from this story, but Clooney never decides which of those movies he wants to make, and so ends up making none of them.
This is material rich with potential for epic wartime drama, but The Monuments Men has no sustained dramatic tension, no narrative arc, and no sense of urgency or danger or the scope of the war.
The Monuments Men might have been a great caper movie, a sort of Ocean's 11 meets The Dirty Dozen. But the film has no true interest in the international detective story at the heart of the MFAA's work: here, the men wander Europe seemingly at random, blundering upon a few works of art more or less by accident. There is no dramatic structure to the quest, and so no sense that this undertaking is daunting, or heroic, or even exciting.
The film might have been a fascinating exploration of the value of cultural preservation in a time of mass destruction: what is the relative worth of a work of art compared to a human life? But, beyond mouthing the question, the film is not really interested in—or does not trust its audience to be interested in—the actual subject of art. The film puts a lot of phony inspirational speeches in the mouth of Clooney's character, but there is no true respect for the importance of history and artistic achievement. (It is telling that, when the film wants to manufacture an artistic Maguffin, it does so by making one of the characters die to protect it: the quest to locate this particular work of art becomes important for personal reasons, not cultural ones.)
With this cast of A-list stars—all of whom elevate whatever material they're given—The Monuments Men should have been a great and fascinating tale of people. However, none of the characters are developed beyond the briefest of sketches, none have character arcs of any kind—they all start saintly and end saintly—and none of them are given anything particularly interesting to do. Forget being developed as characters, the members of the team are not even distinguished as experts: unlike, again, Ocean's 11, we don't even learn what each team member brings to the table. (There is one scene where Balaban's character manages to recognize an original Renoir on a wall, but I humbly suspect even I might have been up to that challenge.) Cate Blanchett almost manages to give a real performance as a French art expert, but otherwise all of these fine actors are criminally wasted in roles so underwritten they might as well have been not written at all.
Barring anything else, The Monuments Men might have committed to being a comedy: certainly, Clooney seems to have gone out of his way to assemble a gifted team of comedic actors, and the tone does often feel like The Monuments Men wants to be an excruciating WWII version of Space Cowboys. There are a few feints at the humor to be found in these middle-aged academics having to undergo basic training and being thrust into a war zone, but the occasional gesture in this direction is all that's to be found: the screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov maintains a frustratingly light tone throughout, but it never really tries to mine any actual comedy. (I don't even know how you put Bill Murray and John Goodman in a movie and not have it be at least occasionally funny, but Clooney has succeeded in accomplishing that dubious miracle.)
As the film nimbly avoids coalescing into any of the good movies it might have been—failing to be either a rousing adventure, a fun caper, a rollicking comedy, or a true historical account—one watches The Monuments Men wondering just what anyone thought the point of it was. With the exception of some mild (and only mildly successful) effort from Damon and Blanchett, no one involved even seems to be even trying to bring any substance to the film, and no one (including the viewer) seems to be having a good time. The blame for this falls squarely on the shoulders of George Clooney, whose tepid screenplay and uninspired direction have taken a potentially fascinating story and turned it into a dull and forgettable film.
If Nazis ever come again with the intention of stealing all the world's works of art, they should be allowed to take this one without a fight.