It’s easy to suspect the worst anytime the release of a major film gets pushed back a few months on short notice. Too often the practice telegraphs the arrival of a movie that isn’t all it should be. That’s a fair description of co-writer and director George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, which was originally scheduled for a holiday 2013 release. Clooney has proved himself a talented filmmaker with movies like Good Night, and Good Luck and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. But he appears to have had some trouble finding the right tone to tell this based-on-true-events story, which focuses on a team of arts professionals who were asked to save Europe’s greatest art treasures from theft or destruction by Hitler near the end of World War II.
The story of the Monuments Men is a natural for film. But when you enlist talent like Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Jean Dujardin (The Artist) to star, you raise the expectation of comedy, which is something that’s hard to reconcile with Nazis. The laughs in The Monuments Men derive mostly from the characters’ banter, which is of a type familiar from Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, and it doesn’t suit the story well. (It would have been no surprise at all to see Brad Pitt show up here for some witty repartee with Clooney.) But the real problem with The Monuments Men can be found in multiple scenes that work fine on their own but appear as non-sequiturs in the context of the film. The screenplay needed more work to make these seemingly random moments come together. That said, the film is lavishly produced, beautiful to look at, and fairly engaging throughout. You could do worse, but Clooney should have done better.
The Monuments Men opens today, February 7, at the Canal Place, Elmwood Palace, Clearview Palace, and Westbank Palace theaters.