It would be hard to make a bad World War II adventure flick featuring movie stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and Jean Dujardin, plus character actors John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville. But with The Monuments Men, Clooney, wearing his director and writer hats in addition to the acting one, pulls it off like it was the plan all along.
Clooney stars as an art historian type who pitches to FDR the need for the Allies to protect as much art as possible in the European theater of the war. He assembles a team of likeminded misfits who are 4-F for military service but might be useful in the war effort after all. In montage fashion, we meet Damon, some kind of painting historian; Murray, an architect or something; Goodman, a sculpture historian or what have you; Dujardin, an airplane painter who used to be some kind of art college instructor; Balaban, probably someone to do with art but I don't remember; and Bonnevile, ditto, except I know he's an alcoholic. Note: Whatever character names and personalities they have are superseded by the institutional identity of the actors themselves. (Blanchett actually plays a part as a Parisian who tries to make the best of a Nazi situation.)
The Monuments Men wants desperately to be a jaunty and whimsical WW2 tale, a la Kelly's Heroes. It is animated by the premise that the twinkle in Clooney's eye can be writ large into a whole film. But The Monuments Men also wants to be taken seriously, a la Saving Private Ryan. What it winds up with is a tonal debacle where, for example, another ostensibly classic cinematic witty-banter tête-à-tête between Clooney and Damon abuts a scene where we are confronted by the colossal monstrosity of the attempted systematic extermination of the Jews.
Also ineffectual is the script by Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov (Oscar nominees for Good Night, and Good Luck., The Ides of March), adapting the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. Much of the dialogue contains homilies about the nobility of the mission tailor-made for the film's trailer. (The team seeks to "protect what's left and find what's missing." The artwork is the "very foundation of modern society." "If you destroy their achievements, their history, it's like they never existed.")
The Monuments Men wants you to think it's funny by being extra jovial in its delivery of cheesy punchlines and corny situations. Characters talk about what they're doing more than they're doing it, they frequently repeat the last line the other person just said, to lend gravity to the conversation, and an episodic plot poorly edited veers toward the discursive. All that, and it wastes a prolonged pairing of Murray and Balaban.
The Monuments Men