“Monuments Men” — a work of art that should stay lost

THE REEL by Ben Conniff

Ben Conniff

George Clooney’s latest period piece, “The Monuments Men,” boasts an intriguing premise and an all-star cast but squanders them with a flat, misguided narrative.

The story picks up when Frank Stokes (Clooney) is tasked with recovering, returning and otherwise preserving millions of pieces of artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II. To get the job done, Stokes rounds up a crack team of his colleagues – architects, artists, curators – to go deep behind enemy lines in search of Europe’s greatest works, including the famous Ghent altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna & Child.

It makes for a riveting concept on paper, but in Clooney’s hands, “The Monuments Men” isn’t quite the romp many had hoped for. If you’re looking for “National Treasure,” you’ll surely be disappointed. The screenwriters Clooney and Grant Heslov (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) fumble between a “Kelly’s Heroes” – like comedy, “Saving Private Ryan” melodrama and hints of romance in the vein of “Casablanca.”

As such, it appears Mr. Clooney doesn’t quite know the kind of movie he wants to make. As I was watching “Monuments Men,” I couldn’t help but wonder how much more entertaining it might’ve been had it been made by Quentin Tarantino. He, at least, would’ve made a consistently engaging diversion inspired by the true story.

That’s not to say that the film is devoid of any genuine heart whatsoever. The cast is impeccable, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett. Within the narrative, most of these core characters are paired up and given various jobs to do, including scouting the locations of hidden art or bringing to justice the Nazi officers responsible for stealing in the first place.

I noticed that most of these pairings were between actors who have previously worked together on other films. Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett (stars of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) find each other in Paris. What starts as a professional relationship founded on the mutual hope of finding the stolen art soon takes a brief, but awkward, romantic turn. Guys, if you’ve ever forgotten to wear a tie to a formal occasion, you’ll understand. 

Other pairings include John Goodman and Jean Dujardin (stars of recent Oscar-winner “The Artist”), as well as Wes Anderson veterans Bill Murray and Bob Balaban (“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Moonrise Kingdom”). I’ve heard some audiences claim that Murray feels miscast, but I find that he and Balaban drive some of the movies funniest moments between sharing a cigarette with the enemy and attempting to rescue Granger (Damon) from stepping off of a land mine. 

I’m glad to see that Clooney lends most of the screen time to his buddies in the cast, including a fun cameo at the end, seeming to focus more on his duties behind the camera than in front. It’s too bad his efforts prove feeble in saving “The Monuments Men” from uneven storytelling. This is one squandered work of art that, for now, remains lost.