Despite the talented people involved, The Monuments Men is a mostly ineffective effort that feels hollow, no matter its weighty subject matter.
The central problem is characterization. There are too many characters, so none of them are well developed. We do not understand or care about any of these people, which means we do not feel their struggle or pain.
The plot is also problematic, insofar as it doesn’t comfortably settle into a rhythm. At times it feels like a mystery procedural, at other times a character-centric drama, and sometimes a plot-driven thriller.
There are also a few attempts at humor, almost all of which fall flat.
Even the ensemble cast struggles to redeem itself. George Clooney (Frank Stokes), Matt Damon (James Granger), Bill Murray (Richard Campbell), Jean Dujardin (Jean Claude Clermont), Bob Balaban (Preston Savitz) and Hugh Bonneville (Donald Jeffries) are all comfortable and charismatic, as they are in every performance, but none of them find or play a character. They are all versions of their own public personas.
Only John Goodman (Walter Garfield) and Cate Blanchett (Claire Simone) impress, but both have such limited screen time and emotional impact that neither registers.
Director George Clooney makes some interesting choices, as when he uses voice-over and in how he frames several shots, but much of the blame must rest with him. If a director is responsible for a project’s overall vision, then The Monuments Men’s fails, if only because this picture doesn’t have one.
Yet, the movie isn’t a complete failure either. The score compliments events well and sets proper tone.
The plot is paced crisply enough that it remains somewhat engaging.
Some of the scenes, as when Preston and Richard meet a German soldier or when James steps on a land mine, are genuinely entertaining.
All the same, most of The Monuments Men does not equal its few merits.