“The Monuments Men” is a badly paced, old man version of “Saving Private Ryan,” and not just because Matt Damon is in it either. Both of these World War II flicks are based around the question: “What is a man’s life worth?” While “The Monuments Men” is not a gritty, gut-wrenching slugfest, enough of its scenes are reminiscent of “Ryan” that it will make viewers wish they were watching that movie instead.
A war film does not need to be a mosaic of non-stop explosions, dirt, blood and gruff male bonding. Neither does the artistic heritage of Western Europe make the movie inherently less interesting than a young private’s life would. What makes “The Monuments Men” forgettable is the plodding, erratic nature of its plot. To loosely summarize, it follows the “Monuments Men,” a specially commissioned squad of elderly art academics, who must follow the Allied forces as they march into the heart of Germany from 1944-45. Along the way, they try to save art and architecture from destruction. The ensemble of leads is split into four geographically separate pairs and they spend the film ping-ponging between white subtitles, to a pattern that the audience cannot intuitively follow. Somehow, this traveling eats up the screen time, with an occasional interesting sequence thrown in here and there. The vague, largely unseen art hunting is strung together on heartfelt voice-overs about why culture is worth fighting and dying for, as much as life, or freedom.
The “Ryan” déjà vu takes hold early, after the “Dirty Dozen” style recruitment montage takes our heroes into the quiet back door of the Normandy landings. The most reminiscent moment takes place in a barn at night, where Lt. Frank Stokes (George Clooney, “Gravity”) gives his squid a stirring pep-talk to remind it what their mission is all about. The men share toasts and grin at each other in the darkness. This reflective scene comes barely one act into the movie, kills whatever momentum had been building, and most of all, feels unearned. They haven’t faced any real hardships of war or saved art yet and Clooney delivers this buttery, warm soliloquy without so much as a ruffle in his salt-and-pepper comb-over. In fact, Cate Blanchett’s (“The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug”) character has already dodged more bullets than the entire male cast combined, and she isn’t complaining about it. It is the first of many scenes that show emotional camaraderie, but without serving up the tension to make the audience realize a war is going on. Later, we get a flash-forward of white-haired Stokes visiting a church in Belgium with his grandson, and the “Ryan” vibe comes full circle.
To be fair, the cast is excellent, but the material Clooney wrote fails them. In particular, Bill Murray feels under-utilized, and despite his top billing, John Goodman outweighs him in comic contribution to the film. There are plenty of clever scenes, but they never rise to exceptional. Any humor or tense, dangerous moments are washed out by schmaltzy sentimentality and sometimes even a kind of mellow, patriotic chest-beating tone. All that is left is a mediocre drama with good historical anecdotes. The film is based on a real group of men, and knowing that this unusual story actually happened is the most rewarding part of the film.