"The Monuments Men" is our kind of action movie: one with Bill Murray and Bob Balaban. Credit: Claudette Barius
'The Monuments Men' Director: George Clooney Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
One of the first scenes in the WWII drama “The Monuments Men” finds a French art historian (Cate Blanchett) spitting in a Champagne glass destined for a German officer. Films like “Inglourious Basterds” — or “The Dirty Dozen,” another men-on-a-mission romp — take glee in sticking it to the Nazis, even rewriting history. “The Monuments Men” will settle for a symbolic eff-you, one the recipient will never detect. That’s as much ambition as the fifth film directed by George Clooney can muster.
Actually, that’s not true. In terms of ground covered, it’s downright unwieldy. And it shows in the storytelling. The tale of a platoon of mostly non-fighters — curators, architects, historians — shipped into the Eastern front to save Europe’s art treasures doesn’t lend itself well to streamlining. Clooney and usual co-conspirator Grant Heslov try to give it a kicky shape. It starts as a send-up of “Ocean’s 11,” with Clooney’s museum director George Stout rounding up the gang. Matt Damon's curator is his Brad Pitt, and wrangled up are such unlikely badasses as John Goodman, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban.
But historical semi-accuracy necessitates that they split up to cover more ground. Some double up, but the pairings are curiously flat, even when they’re Murray and Balaban. Jaunty music borrowed from every old war movie gives the feeling of a fun lark, but the narrative is too episodic even for an episodic narrative. Set pieces peppered too conservatively over the storyline fail to rise and instead peter out like air out of a whoopee cushion. Even a bit where Damon finds himself stuck on a landmine winds up interrupting the comic momentum for a trite ode to friendship between characters who’ve barely filed any screentime as a unit. The best scene — a tete-a-tete between Clooney and a German higher-up who refuses to cave even after the war’s ended — barely belongs in the picture.
In fact, he does little with the idea of art-heads as war heroes. They mostly find themselves in a generic war film, albeit one with its heart in the right place. Clooney doesn’t find a novel way into the story, even doing precious little with the notion of art-heads as war heroes. It still has a certain charm. As his directorial output proves, he has a yen for the past; most of the kicks in “Good Night, and Good Luck” involved its near-fetishistic recreation of the look of 1950s TV. “The Monuments Men” is a noble failure on the order of “Leatherheads,” another curiously listless stab at old-school entertainment that remained impossible to hate even as it let you down. Even as this sits there, wheezing to life, it’s hard not to want to give it a hand. A Nick Clooney cameo, of course, only makes it easier.