Hollywood studios have, since their inception, placed their faith in the star system. Put enough A-listers in the cast, and ticket sales will follow.
As many other movie writers have pointed out, however, in recent years that approach has become increasingly less reliable, and “The Monuments Men” provides an example of why.
George Clooney directed, co-wrote and led an ensemble cast including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban.
It is based on Robert M. Edsel’s much-lauded book, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” about a special military unit tasked with recovering priceless works of art before they were either destroyed or disappeared forever into Nazi or Soviet hands.
This should have been a cinematic event. Columbia Pictures began running trailers for it last August to support a mid-December release but decided to push it back to February, supposedly because post-production was taking longer than expected.
Seeing the movie removes all of the mystery about the delayed release date. Despite the promising source material and all of the star power, “The Monuments Men” would have been slaughtered by awards-season competition in December.
The film’s central problem, although it suffers from numerous others, is the amount of time it spends trying to convince us that recovering art was important enough to risk men’s lives.
We are subjected to several justifications for the mission and even more shots of the characters gazing in awe at paintings and sculptures. It seems like the men spend more time looking at art than looking for art.
All of this undercuts the premise of the story. Audiences who buy a ticket to this film don’t need to be convinced it was important to preserve great works of art. That should be assumed.
But the movie doth protest too much. The repeated efforts to establish the significance of the movie reveals the filmmakers’ lack of confidence in what they are doing.
Much of the film also feels like a fifth act. Even these filmmakers don’t pretend the quest to recover art was more important than defeating Nazis and saving human lives.
“The Monuments Men,” though, isn’t about the primary battles of the war, and the story takes place after an Allied victory was almost certain. It constantly feels as though the climax has already happened off screen, and the Monuments Men merely arrive to provide the denouement.
The best Clooney and his co-writer/co-producer Grant Heslov manage to do is create a little forced suspense here and there.
They also struggle mightily to find the proper tone and give the film its own identity. The beginning is like “Ocean’s Fourteen” set in World War II, as Clooney’s character visits old chums and recruits them with the sheer power of his wink and smirk.
Other scenes play like “The Dirty Dozen” meets “Space Cowboys” as the geriatric crew improvise their way through battle situations.
The most effective scene is a touchingly dramatic moment in the middle of a mobile medic unit, but it would fit better in “M.A.S.H.” Perhaps the least effective scenes come at the end, when the movie cribs from “Saving Private Ryan.”
Meanwhile, it doesn’t borrow enough from any one of those movies or the genres to which they belong to be consistently entertaining.
It isn’t very funny, and with Murray, Goodman, Dujardin and Balaban in the cast, the lack of laughs is a stunning failure.
Nor is it very dramatic or adventurous. Even during the few action scenes, there isn’t a strong sense of danger, despite the bullets flying over the characters’ heads and occasionally into their bodies.
“The Monuments Men” is a capably made but safe and ineffectual movie, and despite trying very hard, it never sells the gravity of its premise.
Edsel’s book launched a foundation for preserving art and celebrating the accomplishments of the real Monuments Men. This film adaptation will not have anywhere near the same impact.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.