Review: The Monuments Men is Less than the Sum of its Parts

"... and here is my house on Lake Como."
“… and here is my house on Lake Como.”

Originally, The Monuments Men was thought an Academy Awards’ contender. A couple of months before opening date, Columbia Pictures decided to push it to February, supposedly because of a “crowded field” ahead.

Now we know why. The Monuments Men is not a bad film by any means, but some major issues hinder an otherwise terrific subject for a movie. Based on the non-fiction best-seller by Robert Edsel, George Clooney and Grant Heslov showed their inexperience at adapting other people’s work by transforming the fascinating story into a loosey-goosey caper.

In the twilight of World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt sanctions a team to protect Europe’s artistic treasures from Nazis and Russians. The squad’s leader, Frank Stokes (Clooney, of course) puts together a group of architects, sculptors and other artists. The one thing missing? Combat experienced soldiers. The Monuments Men are practically on their own in their quest.

To further weaken the unit, they must spread across Western Europe to follow leads on the location of the art, allegedly on its way to a projected Fuhrer Museum. The holy grail of the quest is the Bruges’ Madonna and Son by Michelangelo, a sculpture that causes the first casualty within the group.

The structure of The Monuments Men is an odd one. They are seldom together and their adventures in pairs are light at best… until they become bloody and the tone of the film changes abruptly. Then there is the rhythm (or lack thereof): The movie is so leisurely paced, at no point the built-in tension of the story is portrayed on screen. Only towards the end Clooney (also the director) realizes the movie needs a climax and pits Russians against Americans in a race for some invaluable art work.

Nobody in The Monuments Men acts one bit outside their confort zone. Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman and Bill Murray riff on their regular screen personas. Amusing, sure, but hardly memorable. You know you have a problem when character actor Bob Balaban is your MVP. It could have helped to have a nemesis (besides generic, unmemorable Nazis), a Hans Landa of sorts to provide some focus.

The most egregious offender, however, is composer Alexandre Desplat. His peppy, ordinary score could have worked in Hogan’s Heroes, but here feels mostly inappropriate. Desplat should learn from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska), who takes the very cinematic scenario and runs with it. If the sights of war-torn Europe are interesting enough for you, give The Monuments Men a couple of hours of your life. If not, don’t bother.

Two art-savvy prairie dogs. The Monuments Men is now playing.

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.