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Adolf Hitler stole some of the most valuable art ever created. George Clooney’s stealing it back. That’s essentially the premise of The Monuments Men, a movie that’s part caper, part comedy, part war movie, part inspirational drama and, despite all of those parts, strangely devoid of life. As director, co-writer, and star of this World War II story about the actual Allied platoon of museum curators and art historians that attempted to recover the Nazis’ vast collection of pilfered European masterpieces, Clooney tries to deliver both a zippy adventure about unlikely heroes and a reverent commentary on the importance of preserving cultural achievements. He doesn’t succeed at either. Instead, The Monuments Men drives straight down the middle of the road, becoming a pleasant but consistently lukewarm movie that feels more paint-by-numbers than carefully rendered.
It’s frustrating and a bit baffling that this isn’t a better, more gripping film. In addition to exploring a compelling chapter in the World War II narrative that has never been the subject of a major motion picture, Clooney surrounds himself with an excellent cast of actors, including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey. But while everyone’s hearts seem to be in the right place, during many scenes, their hearts don’t seem to be totally in the movie. Attempts to establish jokey camaraderie fall flat. When Clooney’s character, Lt. Frank Stokes, gravely reminds his guys of the importance of the task at hand—“If you destroy their culture and their history, then it’s like they never existed,” he intones—it feels heavy-handed and too on-the-nose. While Murray commands one moving scene in which his character silently weeps at the thought of distant loved ones back home, he’s never funny here. Not once. When you send national treasure Bill Murray on a daring search for international treasures and can’t get a laugh, something is very wrong.
Actually, the film’s most intriguing character is also its sole female: Claire Simone, a French museum worker and spy for the Resistance played by Blanchett and based loosely on the real Rose Valland, who provided detailed, useful intel about the location of Nazi-hoarded valuables to a trusted monument officer. As written, the role veers into cliché: Claire is the classic reserved librarian type who eventually lets down her guard and (of course) her hair in the presence of one of Clooney’s soldiers. But as Blanchett plays her, she’s a tightly wound bundle of reserve and cloaked rebelliousness; it’s clear there’s an ocean of pain, anger, and exuberance that she can’t tap because, as a spy, her life depends on keeping everything sealed under a tight lid. One can’t help but wonder if this would have been a stronger film if it had focused entirely on her. Perhaps The Monuments Men should have been The Monuments Woman.