Art is great.
If The Monuments Men says anything, it's this. But unfortunately that's all George Clooney's fifth film as a director does have to say. The true story of American and British men and women finding, saving and returning Europe's art treasures stolen by the Nazis as World War II drew to a close is a story worth telling, but one that deserves better than this haphazard adventure.
Clooney stars as Frank Stokes, an art historian who assembles a team of like-minded museum directors, curators and architects to undergo basic training and embark into Europe to save artworks stolen by Axis forces for Adolf Hitler.
His team comprises Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville. It's an impressive cast for sure, but only one that serves as proof that no calibre of actor can overcome a duff script.
The dialogue is hammy, with what action there is regularly grinding to a halt so Clooney can deliver a faux-philosophical monologue about why art is so important to our culture and how Hitler aims to destroy our heritage blah blah blah. He's right of course, but saying it just the once would have sufficed.
Another major problem is that there isn't a single actual character in the film. Not one of the men can be defined by anything other than their facial hair or simple motivation to save art from the Nazis.
Each actor does admirably with what little they have, with their natural charm carrying the film through perfectly well upon first viewing. However there is no reason to root for these men other than liking the actor portraying them and the fact they're fighting Nazis – the most easily-hateable villains possible.
Of all the characters it is Cate Blanchett's Claire who is fleshed out most, but that isn't exactly a compliment. She plays a French woman whose knowledge of the Third Reich's plans makes her useful to our heroes.
She is initially apprehensive of Matt Damon's character Lieutenant James Granger – thinking he is an American seeking the art for himself – but soon warms to him, to the point of trying to seduce him. Having the only female character in the entire film devolve from defiant and strong woman to gooey eyed girl questing for the Matt D, is nigh-on unforgivable.
Not only does the script have corny dialogue and zero character, but it is extremely low on story too. It is set up within the first five minutes that these men are seeking stolen art, but beyond that not a whole lot happens. The big two defining moments are sullied by the aforementioned lack of character, but are of little consequence anyway, beyond singling out a piece of art as being particularly important to find.
For all its faults, The Monuments Men does have some good moments. One such sequence serves no purpose to the film but does represent Clooney's highlight, as he faces a German officer who when confronted with his past as a concentration camp officer, offers up a chilling response.
The other memorable moment is a touching one between Bob Balaban's Private Preston Savitz and Billy Murray's Sergeant Richard Campbell. It's as on-the-nose as everything else in the film, but both actors carry it off perfectly and cement their position as the film's standout pair.
Clooney's decision to turn this story into a boys' own adventure seems to be at odds with the truth of the tale - that numerous women were of utmost importance to the operation. The main problem with this however is a fundamental misunderstanding that a boys-own adventure has to be so excessively focused on the boys, with women relegated mainly to mute wives of side characters, unseen wives of our heroes and Cate Blanchett, who seems to have been bolted on out of necessity.
Some charming performances, competent direction from Clooney bits of impressive production design are all in the film's favour, but crippling script problems and an overbearing score can't save The Monuments Men from being anything other than a well-intentioned but ultimately forgettable two hours.