New aphorism: With great casting, comes great responsibility. I’ve heard people say, of The Monuments Men, “with a cast like that, you can’t go wrong!” Actually, the opposite is true. When a cast includes the likes of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and George Clooney (who also directed and co-wrote), expectations are raised. And if the film doesn’t deliver, it’s doubly disappointing.
At least I can see why everyone signed on (the cast also includes Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, The Artist’s Jean Dujardin, and redoubtable character actor Bob Balaban). The story—based on real events—is a doozy. During World War II, a carefully selected team of curators, art historians, architects, et al were recruited to hunt down and recover priceless works of art that the Nazis had stolen. You see, Hitler, with classic hubris, had hoped to create the world’s greatest art museum. (I’m yet to see a movie about Hitler that doesn’t mention his thwarted aspirations as an artist and The Monuments Men doesn’t disappoint—although in this case, I suppose, it’s appropriate.) The recruits, mostly middle-aged and, in some cases, too drunk or feeble of body to have served themselves, were given the half-hearted blessing of Roosevelt and later, half-hearted cooperation from their fellow soldiers (who were more concerned with carrying out military orders and surviving the war than preserving art). They went through basic training and then, dubbed Monuments Men, tirelessly searched the front lines of Belgium, France, and Germany for the stolen work, often risking their own lives.
The gifted Blanchett has possibly the most interesting part—as a member of the French resistance working undercover as a bookkeeper/art historian for the Nazis. But again, she isn’t given much to do, and a potential romance with Matt Damon’s James Granger is so flimsy and half-baked, I’m not even sure why they bothered.
Most of the film is a series of set pieces: A raid on a church, a roadside ambush, an encounter with an unexpected sniper, but it’s remarkable how low the stakes feel and how little we’re invested in the characters. This is because Clooney—who plays Frank Stokes, the group’s leader—fails to make each character distinct enough. Bill Murray gives us his patented amused deadpan and John Goodman mugs extravagantly as only John Goodman can, but we’re never quite sure why. (The film, which fancies itself a kind of Raiders of the Lost Masterworks, also balances its mix of comedy and drama somewhat awkwardly.) Then, adding insult to injury, Clooney does an earnest voiceover about the power of art that feels dangerously mansplainy.
Another quibbles: The period details never convince. A makeshift walkie talkie is as crystal clear as the latest 4G from Verizon; likewise, a 45 record containing a greeting from home for Murray’s character sounds like it was digitally mastered in a studio. (What’s more, since we know next to nothing about Murray or his family, the scene of him listening to the greeting, in near tears, fails to move.)
There are a few pretty good moments—a comical interlude involving Matt Damon and a landmine; a scene at a Nazi’s farm house where Balaban’s Preston notices that the Renoir “reproductions” on the walls are really, really good —but this should have been pulse-pounding stuff. Instead it feels static and bland, with an overqualified cast and, for this film at least, a director not quite up to the task.