Noble 'Monuments Men' tries too hard to do too much

By Josh Terry

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Feb. 9 2014 4:59 p.m. MST

Bill Murray, Dimitri Leonidas, George Clooney and Bob Balaban in Columbia Pictures' "The Monuments Men."

Claudette Barius, Columbia Pictures

Start with an Indiana Jones plot, blend in an "Ocean’s Eleven" ensemble cast and top it all off with a little "The Great Escape" flair — and you have “The Monuments Men,” a film that has a little bit of everything but not quite enough of any one thing.

There is far worse out there to take your ticket money right now, but for all its merits, this one will leave you thinking that something, somewhere is missing.

“Monuments Men” is based on the real-life exploits of a special group of art experts tasked with securing the countless masterpieces caught in the European crosshairs of World War II. Between Allied bombings, Russian annexation and systemic Nazi theft, the Monuments Men were enlisted in a race against time, before the best art in history would be lost.

George Clooney, who also directs and co-wrote the screenplay, plays Frank Stokes, the leader of this motley band of decidedly non-military material, which also includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray and John Goodman as historians- and architects-turned-soldiers. Stokes recruits the group early in the film and then turns them loose on a variety of key points along the front in Belgium and Germany in an effort to locate the missing art. In the meantime, Cate Blanchett plays Claire Simone, a French curator who was up close and personal with the Nazi occupiers who made off with her life’s work. Her knowledge of the Nazi effort is key to the Monuments Men’s success, so her interaction with Damon's character becomes a kind of hinge point for the film.

Around this hinge, the bulk of the narrative bounces between the efforts of the individuals and duos at work on their different projects, which gives viewers the opportunity to sample the temperature of the greater war going on around them. The result is a lot of powerful individual moments that feel like the highlight reel for a much larger film, since we never spend enough time with any one character to get totally invested in their effort.

“Monuments Men” may also suffer a little bit for its own stakes. One persistent theme of the film is the relative value of the art next to the human life struggling for existence around it. But while "Monuments Men" strives to underscore the importance of art and culture for the generations to come, the contrast of the film's core quest to the vivid life-or-death stakes around it makes a true emotional investment challenging for the audience. The quest may be noble, but at times it strains to feel essential.

That isn’t to say "Monuments Men" isn’t fun, or moving, because at times it is both. Murray and Goodman seem to light up the screen whenever they appear, and scenes such as one that takes place at Christmastime during the Battle of the Bulge are especially moving. The film will also make a strong connection with anyone who has even a passing knowledge of art history, as various pieces such as Michelangelo's Madonna and Child are featured with obvious affection.

But it’s all the good that leaves you feeling like “Monuments Men” could have been more, rather than a film that is less than the sum of its parts.

“The Monuments Men” is rated a fairly mild PG-13 for profanity (including religious references), wartime violence and some nude artwork.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.

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