A fascinating story can be found at the core of The Monuments Men, the new film starring, directed and co-written by George Clooney.
Unfortunately, that story about a dedicated group of men recovering art treasures looted by the Nazis flickers by on the screen in awkward lumps. Unwieldy execution dooms the experience.
Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov co-wrote the script, based on Robert Edsel and Bret Witter’s nonfiction book. But their screenplay unfolds in segments, without much of a cohesive — or even driving — narrative force. Clooney creates little suspense or dramatic tension.
Instead of a connected story with all parts relating to each other, individual sequences unfold — sometimes with seemingly little relation to the overall mosaic. Characters drop in and out, unceremoniously adding their observations and wry asides.
The story revolves around a team of art experts, all middle-aged or older, assembled by Frank Stokes (Clooney) during World War II. The gathering resembles the standard assembling of talents as seen in many films.
Once together, they aim to identify the art being stolen or targeted for theft from museums, churches, synagogues and Jewish families by the Nazis. These vaguely empowered “Monuments Men” will then either protect or rescue the treasures.
Sure, the team wants to save as much treasure as possible, but the dramatic light dims when forced to shine on thousands of objects instead of one. An attempt is made to promote a particular item or two (a sculpted Madonna, a triptych) above the rest, but even their recovery takes place with little fanfare or sense of dramatic fulfillment. And the one Nazi who looks like he might be made the designated villain falls aside about halfway through the film.
A fine roster heads the cast, with Matt Damon playing one of the lead investigators along with an international crew, led by Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abby) and Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist). Bob Balaban, John Goodman and Bill Murray join the team for misplaced comic relief. Cate Blanchett adopts a French accent to play a museum administrator whose mostly neglected story seems to provide the choicest dramatic material.
The Monuments Men marks Clooney’s fifth feature film, and it can only be seen as a falling-off. Nowhere to be found is the madcap energy and physical exuberance of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, or the heightened drama and visual polish of Good Night, and Good Luck.
So, to see Monuments Men just plod tediously along serves as an early-year disappointment.
The Monuments Men
Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.