I think we should all resign ourselves to the fact that the United States will never stop making movies about World War 2. They’re like that guy at the party who always steers the conversation toward their favorite subject, and can deflect all attempts to change the subject like with the deft skill of a JRPG character swatting bullets out of the air with a samurai sword. At the very least, The Monuments Men represents the hope that there are enough interesting stories to be found in that particular conflict that this needn’t be a bad thing.
And the story of the Monuments Men is an interesting one, no doubt, one that had me seriously interested in the film from the first trailer. A team of art experts (most of them as at home in a theatre of war as I am in an extended social situation), dispatched to Europe in WW2 to find priceless works of art either hidden from or stolen by the Nazis and return them to their proper homes. That right, there is a good setup, rife with potential for drama and comedy, if the movie knows how to properly balance the two. Which it can’t, which is the first major problem.
In terms of tone, The Monuments Men is an out of control car, swerving back and forth between somber dramatic moments and comedic scenes with such suddenness that it’s a wonder you can’t hear the film’s gearbox screaming in protest. One minute George Clooney’s ragtag band are finding casks gold teeth taken from concentration camp victims, the next it’s o ho ho, that silly Matt Damon’s stepped on a landmine, whatever shall we do. It’s not impossible to balance comedy and drama in a WW2 film, Roberto Benigni won an Academy Award and the right to briefly go stark raving mad on international television for doing just that. But Monuments Men seems unwilling or unable to properly segway between the two, like a vaudeville act double billed with Schindler’s List.
To make matters worse, the pacing gives the whole film this breathless feeling as it madly dashes from one scene to the next, like the first half of The Lego Movie, but without the presence of Batman to even things out. In the first half hour alone we meet our principal characters, see them go through bootcamp, land at Normandy, go their separate ways on different missions, and before you know it one of them’s dead already. Months will go by with almost no indication of the passage of time, relationships will develop off screen, and things like character exposition get shipped back home to the farm with a shot-off leg.
For most of the movie, I had almost no idea who any of the characters were, or what made them tick, and I got the sense most of the actors had the same problem. John Goodman mostly plays himself, Bob Balaban just sorta stands around and stares, and Bill Murray just looks bored, delivering most of his lines like he was nodding off and someone just nudged him with a stick. Granted, he gets one solid character building scene, but it feels like an island in a sea of blank looks and flat deliveries.
George Clooney and Matt Damon mostly spend the runtime trading dry wit and put-on seriousness, neither of them offering anything as interesting as a character flaw. The only one who seems to be trying is Cate Blanchette, playing a spy for the French Resistence, operating first under constant fear of being uncovered by her Nazi boss and later shrewd and distrustful of Damon’s pleas for help in locating missing artworks. Then she suddenly switches gears and starts not only helping Damon, but putting the moves on him as though, well, as though he were Matt Damon, with “It’s Paris” as the only explanation for her sudden character shift.
The whole story has this similar feeling of being rushed and underdeveloped. Things that would have made for interesting story lines, like Blanchette being blackmailed by her boss, or the tension between Clooney’s men and the Army brass, get glossed over, and often dropped entirely. There’s clearly too much story going on, too much of the actual events Clooney and co wanted to keep in the film, but weren’t eager or able to properly flesh out, and would rather have kept it in as this little vestigial stump of a storyline that could have been than cut it out entirely.
What this should have been, come to think of it, is a miniseries. Something in the vein of Band of Brothers, with enough space to let the characters actually have character, flesh out the story more and give the comedy and dramatic scenes more room to co-exist, as opposed to being crammed into the same narrative like comedically mismatched roommates in a bad sitcom.
I wanted The Monuments Men to be good, but in order to be good, a film needs to have at least some idea of what it wants from itself. Monuments Men can’t decide if it wants to be a comedy, a drama, a war film or a caper, and when it settles on one, it usually spends most of the next few scenes struggling to catch up with the story to make up for all the time it lost staring indecisively as its options, like a man dithering the menu at a restaurant and then cramming the meal down because he’s already late for work, making this the first film I think I’ve seen that actually has indigestion.