The best laid plans-you know what they say. Sometimes things just don’t work out. Sometimes the plans are evil plans. Hitler had Albert Speer design a vast complex called the Fuhrermuseum to display treasures stolen from all over Europe in one great Nazi art shrine. It was intended to be built in the Furher’s home town of Linz and include a theatre, opera house and gigantic library as well as The Adolf Hitler Hotel. Motto: “Come for the Danube, stay for the forced labor.”
Sometimes the plans are perfectly sensible, even promising. George Clooney read about Hitler’s museum, the plundering of the continent set in motion to fill it and the real life band of middle-aged art scholars who volunteered to join the war and rescue the world’s greatest aesthetic treasures from confiscation or destruction, and thought the story would make a good movie. And he was probably right. It’s just that The Monuments Men isn’t that movie.
Directed and co-written by Clooney, with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov and based on the nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel, the picture unsteadily straddles the line between goofball comedy and inspirational issue film, the sort of thing you might’ve wound up with if Good Night, and Good Luck had been about Ernie Kovacs rather than Edward R. Murrow.
The problem isn’t the mission clearly. And it certainly isn’t the personnel. The Monuments Men features a cast recruited from some of the most beloved creations of our time. I defy you not to smile just contemplating a band of brothers composed of Clooney, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Bob Balaban, with Cate Blanchett as icing on the comic cake. It’s a Wes Anderson film waiting to happen. There isn’t a lazy performance in the bunch. Or, astonishingly, a memorable one.
The problem is the script, essentially marching orders to nowhere. You know something’s wrong when Murray can’t wring a few solid laughs out of the material; even he can’t breathe life into this well-intentioned but frustratingly inert affair. It’s not often Clooney starts something he can’t finish, but this ho-hum ode to the importance of great paintings and statues is as much fun as an Art Appreciation class, and just about as exciting.
You’d think, as the filmmaker clearly did, that there’d be something inherently funny about the spectacle of over-the-hill academics tracking down pilfered masterpieces and mixing it up with the third reich here and there, but, as it turns out, there actually isn’t. The movie suffers from an overload of only mildly entertaining banter between unit members and a glaring paucity of attitude and style.
Inglourious Basterds proved WW2 could be a hoot if you’re not afraid to pull out the stops and get weird. In conceiving The Monuments Men, unfortunately, Clooney and Heslov pulled out zero stops, got stuck in earnest gear early on and never quite succeeded in shifting into a more lively one. Art good. Nazis bad. We get it.
The irony behind this saga is that the art preservation outfit was actually formed in response to the destruction of irreplaceable creations, not at the hands of Nazis, but by our side. In the spring of 1944 Allied bombers leveled a 5th century abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy and the team was quickly assembled and sent to the front to keep those in command from blowing up more historical gems. The reality that all this started with our own men putting monuments in peril may well be the funniest thing about this film.
The best laid plans-even George Clooney’s-can sometimes end up the best laid eggs.