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"The Monuments Men" Review

"Historical" dramas (note the quotes) which claim to be "based on real events" are tricky because they blur the lines between fact and fiction often leaving viewers with a misleading impression of how things actually happened. (e.g. The Social Network invented Zuckerberg's girlfriend credited as the incitement for creating Facesmash and "Wardo" wasn't screwed as badly as they made out, though he was only a low-end billionaire after they diluted his shares.) Thus warned you should approach George Clooney's latest, The Monuments Men, with due caution to enjoy this somewhat entertaining, though uneven "historical" dramedy.

It's WWII and Hitler is looting the art treasures of Europe for a massive museum he has planned for when his Thousand-Year Reich has secured victory. Stolen from museums and churches and private collections (mostly Jewish families), art historian Clooney is concerned that as the Allies advance and liberate Europe, historical cathedrals may be bombed and the art within lost as well as seeking to recover what the Nazis stole. He proposes that a team of art historians and architects go through Europe treasure-hunting. The building of the team plays out like Ocean's 7: WWII Art Hunters as Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin (The Artist), and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) are assembled and rushed through basic training (ha-ha, fat Goodman can't get over the obstacle course wall and doesn't know they use live rounds, guffaw) before landing at Normandy, much pacified in July 1944.

From there the team splits up and the film's tone sort of fractures as well. Director/co-writer Clooney and long-time collaborator and co-writer Grant Heslov are trying to balance an old-fashioned feeling war movie with a caper flick with  broad comedic moments and somber sad times and it's just too tricky an act for them to pull off. One example is when the gently bickering duo of Murray and Balaban are bunked with troops during the Battle of the Bulge at Christmas time. They receive packages from home including a record from Murray's family. While he showers, Balaban pipes the record over the camp's PA system allowing everyone to hear Murray's family crooning "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" (one of the most depressing Christmas songs ever!) while in another part of the camp a mortally-wounded soldier found by the road by Clooney is tended to. It's very well done as filmmaking, but totally manipulative and it's not an isolated instance of jarring tone switches, though even deaths are handled lightly.

A plot thread involving Damon trying to convince Cate Blanchett, a French Resistance sympathizer unwillingly working for the Nazis hauling away artworks, goes nowhere over a long period of time and her reluctance to trust him because she fears recovered art will be spirited away to American museums (because it would be better if the Nazis or Russians keep/get it?) is hard to believe. Urgency is increased when they learn that Hitler has decreed that if he's killed that all the art is to be destroyed and the Russians closing in on the eastern front are claiming recovered art as reparations for their tens of millions killed.

I can understand what Clooney and Heslov were going for - a bit of a romp with undertones of the horrors of war and the need to protect art as a collective historical memory of a people - but it just doesn't quite gel up with the episodic structure, predictable tropes, and wasted time on dead end scenes like when Murray has to go to a dentist which seems to only exist as a meaningless callback to his cameo in Little Shop of Horrors. Taken individually, the scenes and sequences are fine, it's just as a whole that they don't really amount to a fitting monument to the fictionalized heroes (ALL the names have been changed, so it's probably more fiction than fact) of The Monuments Men.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.


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