In the beginning, there’s hope.
Near the start of “The Monuments Men,” George Clooney grins a foxy, conspiratorial grin as he recruits Matt Damon for a tricky caper. And you think: “Hey, this could be fun.”
These guys had great chemistry in “Ocean’s Eleven” and its sequels where that grin was much in evidence.
And then, slowly, hope fades as “The Monuments Men” dissolves into a slough of sentimentality and solemn speechifying.
It fades as it becomes apparent that Clooney — who also directed, produced and co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov — rounded up a dream cast of terrific character actors — John Goodman, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban — and then gave them precious little to do. The roles these men play are mere sketches, lacking depth and distinctive personalities.
“Monuments” fades, finally, because there is little sense of urgency to the whole enterprise. Everyone in it just seems to be coasting.
And that’s too bad because the premise of the picture is a fascinating one. Set during the waning days of World War II, it tells the much-fictionalized story of an actual special Army unit given the task of rescuing art treasures looted by the Nazis.
Clooney plays the leader of the outfit, and Damon, Goodman, Murray and Balaban play experts in various fields — architect, art historian, sculptor, etc. — who join up and go to the front to track down the stolen art.
They’re all rather long in the tooth, which gives rise to some pallid basic training humor as Murray & Co., old and out of shape, grunt and gasp through obstacle courses.
The scenes fall flat so the laughs are scant.
Once they reach Europe, there are a handful of combat sequences. In these, Clooney deserves credit for not having these guys turn suddenly into super soldiers. They’re out of their element and ineffective in combat, which leads to some sorrowful outcomes.
Cate Blanchett is in the picture too, playing a French woman with ties to the Resistance who has secretly catalogued the art the Nazis have stolen and must be persuaded by Damon’s character to give the information to him. She’s abrasive at first but later turns uncomfortably cloying during a scene where she halfheartedly tries to seduce the American. In all regards, the character as written is unbelievable.
What truly sinks the picture is its mile-wide streak of sentimentality. In one sequence, a minor member of the cast recites in voice-over a letter home to his father in which he says that by embarking on the mission, he sought to redeem himself from a life wasted in alcoholism. The blood stains on the letter deliver unneeded emphasis on the outcome of that episode.
Perhaps the most egregiously sappy scene occurs during the Battle of the Bulge where Murray’s character is reduced to silent yearning while listening to a recording of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sent from his loved ones back home. On and on it goes as Murray sits, staring blankly.
There is a great deal of talk, most of it delivered by Clooney’s character, discussing how art is a civilization’s lifeblood. “We’re fighting for our culture, our way of life,” he tells the others, and there is much pondering of whether art is worth a man’s life. Worthy topics, delivered as clichés.
The overall effect is of a movie out of time. With its handsome production values and over-obvious point-making, “Monuments” seems as if it came from the ’50s: an old-school, feel-good epic that clobbers you over the head with its uplifting messages.
The Monuments Men
H H 1/2 I I
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett.
Director: George Clooney
Running Time: 1:52
Rated: PG-13; images of war violence and smoking