The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men seems to be about everything except what it's supposed to be about, and that's a huge problem. Here's a movie with a gripping, based-on-true-events story that seemingly has no clue how to make it palatable for the screen. Director/co-writer/star George Clooney obviously has a passion for the subject matter. His passion may have clouded his judgment, though, because instead of telling the tale in the most direct and therefore most compelling way possible, he indulges in too many whims that ultimately detract from the meaning of the event being portrayed.

The film takes place during WWII. Clooney plays Lt. Frank Stokes, who is appalled to discover that the Nazis have stolen countless works of art, many of them masterpieces, with orders to destroy them if Hitler's reign ends. With the war appearing to be nearing an end, Stokes convinces the president to allow him to assemble a group of museum curators, art historians, and architects to enter Germany and find the artworks. His team members are played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville. The key to finding some of the most important pieces rests with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), the assistant curator of a French museum who has inside information.

The Monuments Men aims to be an Ocean's Eleven with historical importance. You've got your all-star team of beloved actors and a complicated mission they need to pull off. For this formula to work, it needs to accomplish three things: make it clear who the characters are, let us know what they intend to do, and describe how they're going to do it. On the first count, the movie fails. Introductions to the characters are rushed, and none of them have much personality. On the third count, it also fails. Almost as soon as the guys begin their mission, they split up. It isn't always clear why certain men have been sent to certain places, or why, at other times, they reunite. How they determine where to look can be cloudy, too. The Monuments Men is surprisingly disjointed in the continuity department. Without that clear vision of their master plan, it becomes hard to know how fully they're succeeding with it.

Now, about that second count. The film is pretty clear what Stokes and his team want to do. However, instead of creating a story in which every scene plays into that goal, it goes down a lot of unnecessary side roads that ensure any sense of momentum or suspense is lost. Scenes begin and it seems to take forever to get to the point. Moments that are irrelevant Murray going to the dentist, Dujardin stopping to look at a horse, Damon having a pseudo-romantic dinner with Blanchett begin to dominate the movie. Even if important information is occasionally conveyed in these scenes, they don't all fit together in a way that increases the urgency of finding the stolen pieces of art. The Monuments Men should play like a ticking clock thriller, with the looming threat of the artwork being destroyed putting the characters in a breathless race against time. Instead, the film takes almost the opposite approach, lethargically meandering here and there until it's time for the big conclusion.

Clooney has a tough time modulating the tone, too. Some scenes are very comical, with the guys busting each other's chops or finding themselves in situations that are handled whimsically. (At one point, for instance, Damon's character steps on a landmine, and the other guys take turns asking why he would do such a thing.) These humorous moments bump up against scenes that are clearly intended to have very serious impact. We even get a lot of heavy-handed platitudes about the value of art and the tragedy of losing it. The movie can't seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a serious historical drama or a lightweight guys-being-guys adventure.

In fairness, the comedic moments are the best part of The Monuments Men. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are especially good together; so good, in fact, that one hopes they'll someday get to costar in a buddy movie. Here and there, you can also see what an effective picture this could have been. Whenever the men register the joy of finding a trove of art or the despair of losing a colleague, there's a glimmer of power. I hope some other filmmaker comes along one day and decides to retell this true story, which has the makings of something really special. The Monuments Men fumbles it. When so many of the great works of art are at stake, we should be biting our nails, not looking at our watches.

( out of four)

The Monuments Men is rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.

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