Monuments Men, The

Reviewed By Daniel Kelly
Posted 02/13/14 03:09:52

"Lots to learn, nothing to love"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

As a history lesson “The Monuments Men” is adequate, yet in most other regards it falls strangely short. It’s a picture with pedigree and an interesting conceit, but the film-making is marred by an unending parade of sloppiness. The narrative and characterization are choppily positioned, leaving the talented cast with little room to chew out the wartime theatrics. Individual scenes work well, but the glue holding them together has wilted irreparably, “The Monuments Men” wobbling its way to a tired, feckless third act that jettisons excitement in favour of diatribes and indulgent bantering. From director George Clooney, we should all expect much better.

With the War drawing to a close, the US Military turns to Frank Stokes (George Clooney) and his band of “Monuments Men”, an aged squadron tasked with rescuing art stolen by the Nazis. Dividing themselves up and making for different sectors of Europe, the men begin to hunt out humanity’s greatest achievements, hoping to retrieve the cultural bullion before Hitler places them in his proposed Fuhrer Museum. With battle waging around them, The Monuments Men are never far from threat, but their appreciation of art amidst the atrocities fuels their thirst for historical preservation.

“The Monuments Men” was delayed due to an elongated post-production process. I anticipate this was less about ironing out kinks and more geared toward rejigging the property completely, this version in theatres coming replete with overbearing voiceovers and scant editorial rhythm. It’s been lavishly produced, but it doesn’t take the movie long to falter, Clooney ill-advisedly skipping over necessary character introductions, instead barrelling the movie headfirst into the strung-out European escapades. This lack of humanity doesn’t hurt “The Monuments Men” too critically during its numerous, flights of relaxed comedy, but when it comes to weightier wartime issues or sequences dependant on interiority, the piece is utterly hopeless. Clooney levels any semblance of individuality, crudely pasting erratic monologues into proceedings in a bid to occasionally create the false perception of import or audience involvement. It doesn’t sit comfortably. The haphazard construction of the narrative is potentially forgivable, but the dearth of realized title characters proves an insurmountable red-flag. At no point do you care about any particular person involved with the mission, robbing the enterprise of general engagement.

The cast are so good they float through the feature unscathed, bringing vital dollops of charm. It’s shameful to see the likes of Bill Murray, John Goodman and Bob Balaban wasted on frivolous supporting roles, but such is their ability they at least gift the piece a welcome lightness of touch. The bond between them is assumed rather than earned, which regularly proves troublesome, but that doesn't mean there aren’t some belly laughs to digest. Damon (split from the main contingent for the majority of the story) and Clooney are enjoyable presences, although neither seems to be trying too hard. As a secretive European accomplice Cate Blanchett is dreadful, a shame following her knock-out performance in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”. Blanchett feels like deadwood on the screen here, she’s meant to convey resentment and doubt, but what comes across is surface-level constipation. Based on a late interaction between the two, I assume some sort of subdued heat is meant to mount between her and Damon, but if that’s the case it completely fails to ignite.

The third act highlights the movie’s deficiencies to an embarrassing extent, tossing the Men across Europe with no urgency or dramatic edge. It’s like some sort of twisted Fine Arts lecture, more of a tiring appreciation course than a dynamic example of screenwriting. It’s thoroughly unexciting, but what’s more constitutes terrible cinematic form, forgoing scope, tension and even spectacle to instead bask in a whole heap of nothingness. The defining set-piece appears to be one in which Damon is stranded on a landmine, the big pay-off being some light patter and amateur engineering. Yeesh.

Tonally there are issues, the aforementioned slapstick mine gag probably shouldn’t precede the eerie discovery of Holocaust gold, but then that’s the road this stuttering production often chooses to walk. Nothing feels precisely fitted, scenes seemingly stitched together at random, leaving unfulfilled gaps littered everywhere. The educational component of “The Monuments Men” is enlightening, and it encourages a genuinely rich discussion concerning the vitality of art; but as a narrative feature it’s a bungled effort. I enjoyed some of Clooney’s sparse flickers of inspiration, but the entirety of what he’s created amounts to a confused and often dull ride. “The Monuments Men” has Oscar potential written all over it, until you actually see the damn thing. [C-]

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