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The Monuments Men Movie Review

The Monuments Men (2014) movie poster The Monuments Men

Theatrical Release: February 7, 2014 / Running Time: 118 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: George Clooney / Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov (screenplay); Robert M. Edsel, Bret Witter (book)

Cast: George Clooney (Frank Stokes), Matt Damon (James Granger), Bill Murray (Richard Campbell), Cate Blanchett (Claire Simone), John Goodman (Walter Garfield), Jean Dujardin (Jean Claude Clermont), Hugh Bonneville (Donald Jeffries), Bob Balaban (Preston Savitz), Dimitri Leonidas (Sam Epstein), Justus von Dohnányi (Viktor Stahl), Holger Handtke (Colonel Wegner)

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On paper, The Monuments Men sounded like an Oscar winner. It hailed from Academy Award fixture George Clooney, who directed the film in addition to writing and producing it with Grant Heslov. Clooney also headed a cast filled with respected talents, including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, The Artist's Jean Dujardin,
and John Goodman, who seemed destined to feature in a third consecutive Best Picture winner. More important than any of that, though, was the story: a true and relatively unknown chapter from the end of World War II involving a team assigned to retrieve and protect endangered, priceless works of art. The scheduled December 18th release date was a no-brainer for an obvious prestige picture.

Then, late last October, the film got bumped to 2014, effectively ending its award campaign before it could begin. Reasons cited included the time needed to complete visual effects and for composer Alexandre Desplat to record his score. Columbia Pictures, which wound up opening legitimate contender American Hustle in its place, at least spared Monuments Men a release in the notorious month of January. Still, it debuts nationwide today on February's first Friday to decidedly mixed reviews, leaving moviegoers and cynics to speculate that it was not just visual effects and music keeping Monuments Men from the optimal award season timing of a Christmastime unveiling.

At the end of World War II, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) leads the Monuments Men into the center of Europe to protect works of art from Nazi plundering.

As a February movie, The Monuments Men has the heavy weight of high expectations lifted from its arrival. Still, many will be surprised to find a World War II film of such pedigree being so light, uneven, and unfulfilling. Whether intentionally or something born out of the editing process, the film plays like one of Clooney and Damon's Ocean's Eleven capers. It's often breezily comedic, kind of cool (or might have been in the 1940s), and very reliant on an appealing ensemble.

Clooney plays Frank Stokes, an American art historian who pitches this idea to the largely unseen President Roosevelt. Stokes makes a compelling case for risking lives to save great art and thus he is placed in charge of assembling a group of older men who possess an appreciation for art. They include his pal James Granger (Damon), French plane nose artist Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), a sculptor (Goodman), tour guide Richard Campbell (Murray), and a Brit (Hugh Bonneville).

After some scaled-back basic training, they break into twos to approach Central Europe from the west and south. Granger connects with a serious French curator (Blanchett) imprisoned by Nazis and suspicious of the whole project. The Brit sets his sights on protecting a Michelangelo statue of the Madonna at a church in Bruges. Richard trades barbs with his sensitive, diminutive partner (Bob Balaban).

James Granger (Matt Damon) and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) admire a recovered painting. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Private Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) get some mail during the Battle of the Bulge.

Laughs are light and few, but the movie doesn't have any more success when it gets serious and attempts to move us. The most flagrant attempt comes during the Battle of the Bulge, as a record from back home with an impeccably sung "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" played over the PA makes Campbell tear up in the shower.

As it should be coming from someone who has made his share of smart, substantial films, Monuments Men has its moments. The best and most gift-wrapped of them may be when Stokes puts a Nazi general's war crimes into perspective
with a powerful, well-delivered smartass monologue. For the most part, though, Clooney is content to let this film coast in an agreeable way. We never get too deep into any of these characters. They're there to share the dialogue and action, not do much more than that.

Desplat's playful score feels lifted from a 1940s military comedy, finding a tone by which the film can be deemed successful. Monuments Men works in a way that a '40s Bing Crosby movie might. The historical weight of the story is not much greater than the backdrop for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Clooney and Heslov aren't making any grand statements about war. They shy from politics altogether. They're just telling the tale of men who risked their lives for something they believed in. In doing so, they help these heroes be remembered longer and more clearly, though less long and clear than a better movie would.

As a piece of awards bait, Monuments Men fails. As a wide release studio film opening in February, it's a lot easier to take. It's not nearly as enjoyable as the original Ocean's Eleven and the fact that can even be compared to that will disappoint those wanting a meaningful, historical war drama. This will be long forgotten by the time 2014's Oscar race starts to heat up.

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Related Reviews:
George Clooney: The Ides of March • Ocean's Thirteen • The Men Who Stare at Goats • Gravity • The Descendants
Matt Damon: Behind the Candelabra • Contagion • Invictus | Bill Murray: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou • Scrooged • Rushmore
Cate Blanchett: Blue Jasmine • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
John Goodman: Argo • Arachnophobia | Jean Dujardin: The Wolf of Wall Street | Bob Balaban: Girl Most Likely
Now in Theaters: Labor Day | New to Disc: Lee Daniels' The Butler • Captain Phillips • Dallas Buyers Club

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Reviewed February 7, 2014.



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