An unlikely World War II platoon are tasked to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their owners.
Year 2, Film #61
THE REVIEW: I heard many different things going into The Monuments Men and based off the trailers, I had many thoughts on what this film would be. My prevailing thought was that it looked like an Ocean’s 11 type heist film where all the players would have to scheme up a way to steal back the stolen art. But the film also looked to be more of a standard drama and even partly comedic as well. Now having seen the film, there’s a good reason for why I was questioning what the film would be like: it is a mix of drama, comedy, and heist film all-in-one. As you might guess this isn’t a positive aspect of the film, among a few other detractors, but there are a handful of gems scattered throughout that are entertaining to watch.
Among the gems is the comedy. The group of men who are chosen for this mission of protecting the great art — Lt. Frank Stokes (George Clooney), Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon), Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Pvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Maj. Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) — provide many laughs while doing it. It’s a very dry type of humor (“I stepped on a land mine.” / “Why would you do that?”) that is right up my alley. By far the funniest pair of people is Richard and Preston (Murray and Balaban) who delivered in every scene they appeared. Not only are they funny individually, but the chemistry they have with each other had me laughing quite loudly whenever they did something (“I don’t smoke.” / “Take a cigarette.”).
But how about the other parts of the film. Again, the basic premise is that these men are going around Europe trying to retrieve art that the Nazis stole. This idea is quite solid. Most WWII films focus on the fighting, or the lives of the people affected during the war. They focus on death and destruction, misery and sadness, and not much else. The Monuments Men really isn’t about any of that. It takes a step back and looks at society as a whole and thinks about what life will be like post-war. Art is one of humanity’s greatest achievements because it represents who we are as people. What we enjoy, what we create, and what we imagine all put down on canvas, sculpted into marble, or recorded in any medium there is. It is an element of war that is rarely seen or mentioned, only alluded to in passing, and it’s nice to see a focus on that here.
The only problem is that the execution was a bit sub-par. As a whole the film felt jumpy and incoherent as if it didn’t know what it was trying to accomplish. One thing I already mentioned was a unclear tone. The Monuments Men is equal parts comedy, drama, and heist film and the problem here is the word “equal”. A good film typically won’t be one genre exclusively — a drama will make you laugh to lighten the serious tone at times and a comedy will hold back the laughs when it needs to be serious. The issue here is that there’s no one genre that this film aims for. What this does is it makes it difficult to ground your reactions and decide what’s what. For me, the comedy was absolutely hilarious, but a funny scene will carry over into the next scene, and when that’s supposed to be a very emotional moment, it takes you aback and forces you to think, “What am I supposed to be feeling right now?”
Another sign of poor execution is all the different locations and times the film passes through. The men I listed above, start off as one unit, and then split up into pairs (or go individually) to different parts of Europe. In addition, the film spans the course of several months from 1944 to the end of the war in 1945 with chunks of time excised to keep the story moving. A great film would be able to balance all of these different stories in such a way that gives the film a certain momentum; structured in a way that always keeps the story moving forward in a way that’s clear and maintains your attention. The Monuments Men does keep the story moving forward — it’s clear that there’s a progression to what we’re seeing — but it often does it in a roundabout and bumpy way. There is little to no momentum in the film because going to each new location feels like a fresh start rather than a continuation. The timing between the four or so parallel stories is too spaced out so by the time you return to one location (for example: the farm with Richard and Preston), it takes a few moments to reorient yourself as to where you are.
For the most part, The Monuments Men provided a decent level of entertainment. To see and learn about a WWII story that is barely mentioned or talked about (if at all) of saving millions of pieces of art is great. While the film could have done so much more with the story, or even restructure what they have a bit to make it flow better, there were definitely moments that worked. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban were responsible for many of those moments, but the rest of the extraordinary cast does a good job at making the best of what they have.
The Monuments Men opened in theaters this past Friday, February 7, 2014.
THE RATING: 3 out of 5