George Clooney’s The Monuments Men is a prime example of the pedigree fallacy. It has a cast full of Hollywood’s A-list and likable character actors, including Bill Murray, and it wants to tell a story about the Greatest Generation. It is about professors and historians who fight to preserve culture in the face of actual evil: they’re sort of like Indiana Jones, except without the youthful exuberance of Spielberg’s imagination. This type of pedigree should lead to an exceptional war film, but The Monuments Men is mainstream entertainment at its most mirthless: inoffensive and tepid, this is so middling that it diminishes the achievements of the characters on which it’s based.
It’s the throes of World War 2, and Hitler (a failed art student) wants to get his hands on as much art as he possibly can. He plans to create a great art museum, or destroy the pieces if he fails. Stokes (Clooney) alerts the war effort about Hitler’s plan, and assembles an unlikely band of historians to go overseas and reclaim the art on behalf of Western Civilization. From the lazy team assembling montage onward, Clooney and his fellow aesthete soldiers visit one decimated city after another, looking for clues about where exactly all the art was hidden. Meanwhile James Granger (Matt Damon) befriends Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a French secretary who works for an art-hungry German general. Their paths converge once the self-appointed Monuments Men figure out the Germans’ strategy.
The script is episodic and deliberate, as if Clooney and his screenwriter Grant Heslov have little interest in the details of their subject. Only a handful of art gets a specific mention, but there’s little context for their cultural value. An early scene explains how destroying a culture is worse than the loss of a generation, and again Clooney/Heslov commit the cardinal screenwriting sin of telling, not showing. As for the Damon sub-plot, he spends most of the movie away from the others, and his would-be romance with Blanchett plays out like Clooney is embarrassed by any potential chemistry between them. As for the rest of the cast, Clooney breaks them off into pairs and creates little moments that are too tasteful to be funny or suspenseful.
John Goodman and Jean DuJardin, who last appeared together in The Artist, have one good scene involving a young German soldier and yet are absent any camaraderie. Murray and the understated comic actor Bob Balaban do their best to stand out, yet their interactions are muted when they should be prickly. There are two death scenes in The Monuments Men, and each one strives for bloodless, somber glory and yet there is little to no emotional connection. The only time when Clooney hits his target is when he goes for understated comedy. The closest thing to suspense occurs when Damon accidentally stands on a land mine, and even then they payoff is barely worth the chuckle.
There is a great movie that could be made from this premise. It does not matter that The Monuments Men were not in any great battles, nor does it matter that the production values and camera work have the museum-like tastefulness of a Ken Burns documentary. The thing that’s missing from this movie, the thing that makes it a husk of an adventure, is an actual appreciation for art. Clooney and the others go through the motions of preserving culture, yet there is little sense the script understands what’s at stake. The Monuments Men is like an ineffective professor: it lectures the audience about why we should care, and fails to demonstrate why. At least there’s some novelty in watching actors smoke on camera.