Before it was postponed out of last year's Oscar season and dumped into the first quarter of 2014, The Monuments Men seemed like the perfect prestige picture. A World War II era historical drama about the virtue of art and its reflection of humanity with a ridiculously charming all star cast you couldn't help but want to see working together; its hard to imagine how it wouldn't be amazing. Because the deck is so stacked in its favor, it only makes the lackluster final product that much more disappointing, as the film constantly leads you on to assume it must get better and come into its own eventually, but like so many old fat guys in basic training never quite makes it over the wall.
The titular monuments men are a group of experts in classical artwork commissioned by the U.S. Military in the waning years of World War II to ensure the salvage of lost art pillaged by the Third Reich's march of conquest. Impeding their mission are the last remaining Nazis, under orders to destroy their stockpiles on their way back to Germany, and the Russians, America's nominal pre-Cold War ally who feel entitled to steal the art for themselves as payment for helping win the war. Right away this premise lends itself to an exciting treasure hunting adventure evocative of an Indiana Jones movie, a race against time with enemies at all sides, but its perversely designed to take all the bite and intrigue out it.
Based on a true story need not mean a boring or undramatic one, but The Monuments Men doesn't seem all that interested in making the transition from real life to cinematic life. It feels like a direct translation of a non-fictional account without any regard towards re-arraigning the component elements in a way that works in narrative form, with events playing out like staggered vignettes only loosely connected to each other by having the same characters and context. Many of these individual segments are themselves very entertaining, notably the Bill Murray/Bob Balaban and John Goodman/Jean Dujardin threads respectively, but engaging subplots do not make for an engaging movie if the central thrust is so weak, and here, the film's lack of cohesion causes it to start losing steam almost as soon as it starts gaining it.
What's more, the entire movie is far too pre-occupied with attempting to justify its own existence. George Clooney has at least three very long and passionate speeches including the final denouement in which he is basically explaining why the audience should be interested in the events depicted in the film. That this desperate need for validation is also reflected in the story itself, with the entire operation considered a pointless endeavor by those lacking in artistic appreciation, makes the meta-textual plea for relevance somewhat amusing, but no less cloying. Its a World War II movie without any pitched battles or tragic holocaust imagery, and it spends more time trying to argue that its still worth while without all that stuff than it does actually demonstrating it.
With all the talent on screen, Clooney's latest directorial effort is perhaps more watchable than it has any right to be. It fails to be the movie it could have been and by all rights should have been, but any movie with Bill Murray and John Goodman fighting Nazis comes with a minimum entertainment factor that can't be denied or dismissed despite its many obvious flaws. That being said, even that monumental advantage is just barely enough to make The Monuments Men just barely enjoyable, and with so many missed opportunities and so much forsaken potential, the few automatic, guaranteed bright spots almost feel manipulative even as they provide the only reason to keep going. The arts had no better advocate than the real life monuments men in their day, but in this day and age, they needed a better advocate than this movie.