Matt Damon, left, and George Clooney star as part of a band of people hunting for art during World War II in 'The Monuments Men.' (Claudette Barius / Columbia Pictures)
“The Monuments Men” looks so promising.
Take a gander at the can’t-lose cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, veteran Bob Balaban. With Hugh Bonneville from “Downton Abbey” and Oscar-winner Jean (“The Artist”) Dujardin. Wowzers.
And then there’s the plot, a “Magnificent Seven” spin on guys out to save art during World War II, based on a true story.
Top it all off with the greatest bad guys ever — Nazis! And just for good measure there are back-up bad guys — Russians!
What could go wrong?
Well, the film could be a bit tedious. And old-fashioned. It could lack chemistry. It could wait too long to get rolling. And, even then, it might not roll much.
“The Monuments Men” is a film that fails to live up to the promise of its parts. Directed by Clooney, who adapted the screenplay, along with producer Grant Heslov, from a book of the same name, it never gels into a coherent narrative until its second half and features too many incidents that — whether true or not — don’t work dramatically.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, an art expert of some sort — none of these characters are given much in terms of background — who convinces President Franklin Roosevelt to let him form a group of soldier-art experts tasked with trying to preserve the great paintings and sculptures of Europe during WWII.
He puts together the gang that includes five Americans, a Brit (Bonneville) and a Frenchman (Dujardin); but before we can get any sense of them as a group, he breaks them into teams of two and sends them on separate, mostly inconsequential and uninteresting missions for the first half of the film.
Damon’s character, James Granger, for instance, is smuggled into France so he can investigate Nazi pilfering in Paris. But for some reason, he ends up spending time on a farm, doing nothing for a while. Why do we care? Answer: We don’t.
When he makes it to Paris, he meets Claire Simon (Blanchett), who worked at a Paris museum while the Nazis were stealing its art. She knows where it’s been taken, but won’t tell Granger, afraid he won’t return the art. This stalemate, which is nothing more than an excuse to get Blanchett, your basic potential love interest, in the film, drags on.
Eventually the gang — or what’s left of it (there are some spectacularly stupid combat encounters) — reassembles with the purpose of seeking out all the art the Nazis have stolen. It turns out they’ve taken huge amounts, and the movie finally gets a bit interesting. But you still have silly scenes, such as one in which Granger steps on a land mine, and his companions decide if he’s going to blow up, they will as well. Right.
Clooney’s obviously going for old-school charm and camaraderie here, but the first half of the film is so scattered, and the characters are so lacking in specifics, that a sense of group bravado never feels earned.
Of course Murray, Goodman and Balaban have their moments, and some bad French makes for a few smiles, but too much of the time the characters here seem as if they’re each in a different film. Maybe their other films are as good as “The Monuments Men” should have been.
'The Monuments Men'
Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking
Running time: 118 minutes