“The Monuments Men” Movie Review

     George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” was originally scheduled for a marquee launch on December 18th, 2013 after months of promotion angling for awards contention.  No doubt the studio saw something they didn’t like when the film was curiously rescheduled with a February 7th release date instead.  This simply could have been due to the film not being finished on time, but after viewing “The Monuments Men”, it is clear why the film was moved out of awards season and into February movie oblivion.  Clooney has assembled an A-list cast, including himself, and has backed them with a worthy and interesting true story, but the execution and choices of scenes and their content send the narrative floundering in the wrong direction.  The film is a true missed opportunity and I’m not sure why Clooney faltered since the elements to a much better picture are there.  The resulting fiasco is a mishmash of scenes that send the characters in a number of different directions, failing to take advantage of putting the likes of George Clooney and Matt Damon, among others, on screen together for more than a few minutes.

     The film opens with Frank Stokes (Clooney) giving a presentation to President Franklin Roosevelt on the efforts Hitler is making to acquire the many rare paintings, statues, and works of art located throughout war torn and Nazi occupied Europe during World War 2.  The pitch by Stokes would create a small platoon of experts in the field of art, send them through basic training, and deploy them on a mission to recover these artifacts which Hitler has hidden away in hopes of one day creating his own personal art museum.  Stokes’ crew is made up of James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), each having their own specific expertise and the ability to identify the most valuable pieces stolen. 

     Now I would argue that Clooney the writer/director (notables include “The Ides of March” and “Leatherheads”) has yet to reach the heights he has as an actor and producer and “The Monuments Men” is no exception.  The script, penned by Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, offers no backstory on any of the characters, glossing through their basic training with a total of two meaningless scenes before thrusting them into the combat zone with a landing on Normandy Beach after it had long since been taken by Allied Forces.  With a golden opportunity of having “Stripes” veteran Bill Murray going through basic training, you would think there would at least be a wink to the former as the opportunity for much needed comic relief is there but never taken by a script that feels these older men going through basic training before their mission wasn’t important enough. 

     Instead Clooney stages a briefing of sorts with the group and then proceeds to send them off in different directions miles and countries apart.  This ruins the narrative structure significantly as the picture is forced to move from subplot to subplot and then back again as each member of the group, some of which are in pairs, hunt for stolen artifacts and encounter different obstacles along the way.  Many of these scenes feel hurried and incomplete, resulting in the audience never really being sure what exactly each member is trying to accomplish.  One of the better subplots has Granger (Damon) investigating a lead that takes him to the secretary of a former Nazi leader who had a major hand in stealing many of the pieces the group is looking for.  Played by Cate Blanchett, Claire Simone and Granger are given plenty of quality time and their relationship is perhaps the only one that is truly fleshed out during the story.  Their time on screen indicates a believable development of trust between the two and thus leads to the group’s most significant finds.  With so many characters; however, it would’ve been impossible for Clooney to devote the same amount of screen time to each which results in many scenes that play emotionless.  Key characters are killed, but the audience simply doesn’t know them well enough to be emotionally invested.  It’s a shame these fine actors weren’t given the juicy material they deserve.

     Another obstacle which proves difficult to overcome is the fact the war is essentially over at the point these guys are flown in and the threat of aggression from the enemy is virtually nonexistent.  This creates a lack of suspense in key scenes that would be fine if Clooney had taken advantage of the comedic talents of his cast, which he unfortunately chooses not to do.  The resulting end product leaves nothing to really root for, not to mention many of these artifacts importance isn’t fully explained either.  I’m not an art expert and a little back story on what they were looking for might’ve added to the urgency of the situation (think the “Indiana Jones” films and the significance of the artifacts he was searching for).  As is, “The Monuments Men” is a solid but unspectacular effort where the viewer will likely identify the foundation of what could have been a better film, but instead is sabotaged by a script that doesn’t know what is important to present to the audience and what is not.  GRADE: C