‘The Monuments Men’ Review
“They don't make 'em like that anymore!”
That's what my old man always liked to say when we'd watch a black and white Hollywood classic. Sometimes he meant it as a sign of respect. Sometimes he meant it to mean, "Wow, that was super cheesy."
George Clooney's 'The Monuments Men' goes right down the middle.
It puffs out its chest, proudly, defiantly and says “this is good, old-fashioned, values-driven entertainment with a mid-60s JFK liberal ethos.” It is also undeniably square, man. Really, really square. Its secular humanist spiritualism in the presence of devotional art has a Jean-Luc Picard-like reverence toward culture. Only the “based on a true story” boundaries kept a young Wesley Crusher-ish dork from joining Clooney's team of Armed art historians.
'Monuments Men' - if the mouthful title has prevented you from watching a trailer - is about the slightly wacky group of preservationists who parachuted into Europe at the end of the war to try and stop the Nazi theft/destruction of priceless works of art. Current headlines show they weren't entirely successful, but they did put a major dent in German war profiteering and the pseudo-philosophical scorched Earth policy Hitler had against France, as well as his personal hatred of “degenerate” painting. It's a pretty fascinating story.
But, is it a movie?
Well, not really, at least not in the traditional sense. Though I'm not personally hip to the behind the scenes aspect of this film, the patchwork narration suggests a stretched, folded and rekajiggered screenplay. There are a lot of really sharp scenes in the movie – and with a cast like Clooney, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin and Bill Murray that's no surprise. But it never adds up. 'Monuments Men' is reminiscent of some of the more frustrating qualities of Robert Altman. Its wide tapestry offers quite a few remarkable moments, but its fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants tone can be frustrating. It's one of those movies where you think, “Okay, when is this story going to start?” then you check your watch and realize you are forty-five minutes in.
The 'Monuments Men' score by Alexandre Desplat is a head-on charge against Elmer Bernstein's unstoppable earworm from John Sturges' 1963 film 'The Great Escape.' That is another “enjoyable” movie about World War II that took a look at an odd corner of the conflict – POWs – and threw a tiny bit of frathouse fun in with the seriousness. 'Monuments Men' does a good job of selling the moral complexity of the job these guys had to do - Is it right to call off a bombing run to save yet another altarpiece? - but, it could've used a little bit of the fun.
In between the Balaban/Murray yuks and the race against the mustache-twirling Russian “trophy brigades,” Clooney goes heavy into 'Good Night, and Good Luck.” territory, literally lecturing us. The passion comes through and the movie ends with the 'Schindler's List' shot and swell of emotion that may just convince you. They don't make 'em like that anymore!
'Monuments Men' opens in theaters on February 7.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.