Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review: "The Monuments Men"

Director: George Clooney
Runtime: 118 minutes

Even at just two hours, The Monuments Men feels longer than World War II itself. There is fascinating history in this story, but draggy pacing and a lack of stakes quickly drown this star-studded endeavor. Director and co-writer George Clooney has assembled a big name cast who are all dressed up with nowhere to go, even in a story set against WWII and the last days of the Third Reich. Neither convincingly dramatic nor sufficiently comedic, The Monuments Men is a misfire that casts significant doubts on Clooney's abilities behind the camera.

Rather than sit through The Monuments Men, you'd be better off watching the excellent documentary The Rape of Europa. Despite all of the big names and Hollywood gloss, Clooney's film is strangely inert from the get go. By contrast, the Europa doc is a fascinating, gripping account of an often-overlooked episode in the second World War. 

To call the characters in The Monuments Men underdeveloped would be an understatement. They are barely sketches. Even in the hands of a talented ensemble, the painfully thin writing is nothing but a hindrance. A good third, maybe even half, of the film is meant to be something of a comedy, but the results are often as flat as day-old Coke. Matt Damon, always watchable, is essentially human cardboard. He's not helped by the way the film sidelines his subplot for long stretches, to the point where it feels like years have passed each time we check in on him.

Meanwhile, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are stuck with unbearably forced comedic relief, none of which is helped by the painful amount of time between lines of dialogue. For a film that should have such significant stakes, it's somewhat astonishing how badly Clooney botches the pacing here. Motivations are nonexistent, as is character development. What we're left with is a middling slog of a history lesson with nothing left to offer either historically or cinematically. Moments that should land hard evoke mere shrugs, while the overall impact of the journey is reduced to, "art is kind of important, no?"

But the biggest offender of all is just how self-congratulatory the whole enterprise feels. A few lines about the importance of art are merely tossed off, and this alone is supposed to make the whole journey mean something Important. Yet when a character stares in awe at an abandoned Rodin sculpture, there's no reason to care or share in that moment of awe. This same level of laziness is present from the get-go, which makes all two hours of The Monuments Men crawl by through an interminable series of episodes. The Monuments Men make look the part, but, as a film, it has all of the worth of warm champagne without any bubbles. 

Grade: C-/D+

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