Despite the general run of critical opinion, The Monuments Men isn’t a bad movie. Had it been signed by, say, Brett Ratner or McG, it would be judged as pretty good. But it’s from George Clooney, and we expect more than “pretty good” out of Clooney (whether or not we should). We also expect more from this cast. When we get “pretty good,” it’s easy to overreact. Is The Monuments Men a disappointment? Yes, it is, but it isn’t a crashing disappointment. For fans of Clooney and the actors — or WWII history buffs — it’s certainly worth seeing. That it should have been — or could have been — something wonderful … well, that’s another matter.
I’m not sure what we expected, but what we got was a less eventful take on The Dirty Dozen (1967) mixed with a less cheeky Kelly’s Heroes (1970). Think of it as Clooney’s Artistic Dozen, and you’re sort of there. Instead of a team assembled from convicts, we have a team assembled from art experts. Instead of the team stealing a pile of gold from the Nazis for their own benefit, our heroes are out to save art stolen by the Nazis with an eye on returning it to its owners. Of course, all this is dictated by a historical narrative (well, more or less), and this seems to be where the film stumbles. The movie becomes rather tepid by being too respectful and too cautious. With this director and cast, it’s impossible not to feel that it should have been more playful than it is. Fleeting moments have that quality, and Bill Murray and Bob Balaban come off better than most. But even the things that strike that tone are often squashed by Alexandre Desplat’s overbearing sub-John Williams score. In this regard, the movie feels like Clooney handed it over to the composer and said, “Make this sound like a Spielberg picture.” It’s not a good fit.
With all that working against it, The Monuments Men is still surprisingly entertaining in a minor key and on a less-than-grand scale. The basic story is sufficiently interesting by itself. And for everything that Clooney doesn’t quite make sing, there are individual components that he gets right. Most of the scenes involving Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett are good. Some of them are better than good. Even the overworked gag about Damon’s mangled French plays nicely. Hugh Bonneville’s big scene is solid, but it tries too hard. John Goodman and Jean Dujardin make an appealing team, and their scenes — both comedic and tragic — work. But Balaban and Murray steal the show on every level. They’re not only unfailingly amusing, but they have the movie’s most emotionally effective scene. It’s perhaps telling that the scene in question involves a homemade record of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (sung by an uncredited Nora Sagal), meaning it isn’t slathered in Desplat’s score.
Oddly, the player who comes off as the least interesting is Clooney himself. Clooney has tamped down his puckish charm and given himself most of the movie’s heavy lifting. That means he does a lot of speechifying about the importance of their mission. It’s not bad — and Clooney is incapable of squelching his innate movie star charm — but it isn’t necessary to state and restate the importance of saving our cultural heritage. However, in the bargain, he has also given us a thoroughly professional — and somewhat old-fashioned — movie. That it’s a good bit shy of what it might have been is a pity, but it is not without its merit. Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking.
Playing at Carmike 10.