Safety first 

No guts, no glory in The Monuments Men

To be fair, I don't particularly like action, adventure or war films, sentimentality or happy endings, so from the start The Monuments Men and I sort of got off on the wrong foot. But I'm a professional, damn it. I was fully prepared to judge the film on its merits, and if necessary, lavish its director, co-writer and star George Clooney with faint praise. Tragically, the film turned out even worse than I thought it would be. I wish I'd gone to The Lego Movie instead, a children's film based on a boring toy—what does that tell you?

In The Monuments Men, based on a book and true story, the Third Reich has squirreled away the world's masterpieces, and if Hitler dies his men have orders to destroy everything. Professor Frank Stokes (Clooney) explains the problem to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his men in what looks like a 1940s era PowerPoint presentation. "Who will make sure the Mona Lisa still smiles?" Stokes says to a score that I will come to know throughout the film as insidious, swelling and needlessly heavy-handed.

The movie makes it seem as though a case needs must be made for saving the art, and it's a thesis they keep returning to: Is preserving thousands of years of beautiful culture and tradition worth a few human lives? I haven't read the book, so maybe I'm wrong that this idea is exaggerated for the film, but it seems to me that protecting and recovering property and resources has always been a component of why we fight.

click to enlarge “I need to know what becomes of Bilbo Baggins!”
  • “I need to know what becomes of Bilbo Baggins!”

To go behind enemy lines and identify the stolen works, Stokes will need a ragtag assembly of aging art experts, played here by a collection of beloved actors. In a movie where everything is just a little lamer than it needs to be, the Monuments Men are blandly introduced and collected at their respective job sites. We've got Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville, listed helpfully in the credits in order of their descending star power. There's no conflict, resistance or even funny quips in sight. In keeping with the spirit of the times, the men are stoic and eager to contribute to the war effort any way they can. For inspiration on how to bring together beloved characters for a shared task, Clooney should have watched D2: The Mighty Ducks, which has the team visiting each of the old cast members on rollerblades at the mall where they conveniently all work now. Their ringleader says something like, "Take off your apron, we're getting the team back together!" I mention it only because this montage from a children's film about hockey is executed about 10 times better than in The Monuments Men.

These excellent actors are forced to play characters who are unfunny and indistinguishable from one another. The story puts them in dumb pairs, navigating a PG-13 version of a war-torn landscape, so rest assured that even amidst the watered-down carnage, nothing truly bad will happen. Cate Blanchett shows up as a French art curator secretly working for the resistance. Matt Damon needs to gain her trust, since she alone holds important information as to where the stolen art's been transported.

If the script is a gloved hand feeding a nest of starving birds, Murray and Balaban have the most scraps with which to work. Balaban as Preston Savitz becomes "Private Preston Savitz," which he hates being called. (This is a recurring joke that I entirely do not get, but that one's probably on me.) Mostly they're rivals who get along just fine and have no real conflict or heart to speak of.

More than anything, The Monuments Men damns itself with its uneven tone and dogged commitment to please. I think Clooney wanted to make an inoffensive film with universal appeal, but good art rarely comes from such a compromised place. It's not that you can't mix levity and tragedy in a war film—you needn't look further than Inglourious Basterds or even Catch-22 to prove that—but to pull it off you need guts and good characters, and sadly, The Monuments Men has neither.

The Monuments Men continues at the Carmike 12.

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