Where’s the art?
That’s the mystery that propels the plot of “The Monuments Men,” a World War II drama about a ragtag team of curators in uniform searching for Nazi troves of stolen paintings and statuary. Sadly, it’s also the question bedeviling the movie itself. How can this be? George Clooney has proved he can direct and write as well as act. The cast seems bulletproof: Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, and that’s for starters. It’s a great story, and much of it’s true. This should work like a pip.
Instead, “The Monuments Men” is a tonal mishmash: Half “Hogan’s Post-Doctoral Heroes,” half “Saving Private Rembrandt,” and half “Ingres’s 11.” That’s three halves, so you can see the problem.
The script by Clooney and his producing partner, Grant Heslov, takes the story of the actual “monuments men” — 345 or so men and women, service members and civilians, museum directors and art historians — who made up the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, and retrofits it for a scrappy tale of teamwork and sacrifice. (Their source is Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s 2009 book, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.”)
Leading the invented squadron is Frank Stokes (Clooney), a dashing art conservation specialist based loosely on George Stout of Harvard’s Fogg Museum. The other members of the movie’s magnificent seven include James Granger (Damon), based on the Metropolitan Museum’s James Rorimer; architect Richard Campbell (Murray); sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman); theater director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban — a gloss on Lincoln Kirstein); French design specialist Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin, of “The Artist”); and British scalawag Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville).
After surviving a comic basic-training sequence, the group lands in Normandy in the wake of D-day, splits up, and darts back and forth across the advancing front trying to locate and save such cultural masterworks as the Ghent altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. The Nazis are looting the treasures of Europe and stashing them somewhere in the east, either in preparation for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum or to destroy if the war turns against them. Says Stokes to his men in the required Big Speech, “We’re fighting for our culture and our way of life. If you destroy your enemy’s achievements, it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants.”
That he says this over a military radio to his men in the next room is just one of the many curiosities of “The Monuments Men.” So is a Battle of the Bulge sequence involving a teary Murray, an Army shower, and a recording of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” broadcast over the PA. So is the presence of Blanchett as Claire, a Parisian art historian and Resistance member who, in a scene in which she and Granger mix dinner and espionage, is the closest the film comes to a love interest. Her role is based on Rose Valland, who’s worth a Google; both women deserve better.
“The Monuments Men” was originally slated to appear last fall, as part of the annual Oscar run-up, but Clooney delayed the film’s release, claiming that extra special effects work was needed. Whatever the case, the film’s a failure of post-production. All the pieces are here — a fascinating story (with relevance as recent as the November 2013 discovery of 1,500 paintings stolen by the Nazis and hidden for 80 years), excellent production values, a handful of solid scenes, and strong performances. True, Murray is wasted, but Bonneville looks ecstatic to leave Lord Grantham of “Downton Abbey” in the lurch, and can you blame him?
Yet the pieces never match up, because the script can’t decide whether it’s a caper comedy, a patriotic drama, or a historical adventure. Trying for all three, Clooney ends scenes with a whimper before leaping into the next shift of tone, and he bastes everything together with a dreadful forced-march of a musical score by Alexandre Desplat — cutesy tubas to let us know when we’re supposed to be laughing, cliched trumpets when we’re meant to tear up.
With all that stitchery, the film feels overlong at nearly two hours, although the pace does pick up as the boys head into the mines of eastern Germany. By then, the Allies are winning the war and Clooney has lost the audience. In reality, the “monuments men” are credited with rescuing 5 million pieces from the vacuum of Nazi “ownership.” It was a monumental task, and this movie isn’t up to it.