The best-laid plans — you know what they say. Sometimes things just don't work out. Sometimes the plans are evil plans. For instance, Hitler had Albert Speer design a vast complex called the Führermuseum to display treasures stolen from all over Europe in one great Nazi art shrine. The Führer intended to have it built in his hometown of Linz and include a theater, an opera house, a gigantic library and the Adolf Hitler Hotel. Motto: "Come for the Danube, stay for the forced labor."
Other plans are perfectly sensible, even promising. For instance, George Clooney read about Hitler's museum and the Nazis plundering the continent to fill it. He read about the real-life band of middle-aged art scholars who volunteered to join the war effort and rescue the world's greatest aesthetic treasures from confiscation or destruction, and he thought that story would make a good movie. He was probably right. It's just that The Monuments Men isn't that movie.
Directed and cowritten by Clooney with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, and based on the nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel, the picture unsteadily straddles the line between goofball comedy and inspirational issue film. It's the sort of thing we might've wound up with if Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck had been about Ernie Kovacs rather than Edward R. Murrow.
The problem isn't the mission. And it certainly isn't the personnel. The Monuments Men features a cast recruited from some of the most beloved movies of our time. I defy you not to smile just contemplating a band of brothers composed of Clooney, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Bob Balaban, with Cate Blanchett as icing on the comic cake. It's a Wes Anderson film waiting to happen. There isn't a lazy performance in the bunch. Nor, astonishingly, is there a memorable one.
The problem is the script, essentially marching orders to nowhere. You know something's wrong when Murray can't wring a few solid laughs out of the material; even he can't breathe life into this well-intentioned but frustratingly inert affair. It's not often Clooney starts something he can't finish. But this ho-hum ode to the importance of great paintings and statues is as much fun as an art appreciation class and just about as exciting.
You'd think, as the filmmakers clearly did, that there'd be something inherently funny about the spectacle of over-the-hill academics tracking down pilfered masterpieces and mixing it up with the Third Reich here and there. As it turns out, there actually isn't. The movie suffers from an overload of only mildly entertaining banter between unit members and a glaring paucity of attitude and style.
Inglourious Basterds proved that World War II can be a hoot if you're not afraid to pull out all the stops and get weird. In conceiving The Monuments Men, unfortunately, Clooney and Heslov pulled out zero stops, got stuck in earnest gear early on and never quite succeeded in shifting into a livelier one. Art good. Nazis bad. We get it.
The irony behind this saga is that the art-preservation outfit was actually formed in response to the destruction of irreplaceable creations not by the Nazis, but by our side. In the spring of 1944, Allied bombers leveled a fifth-century abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy. The team was quickly assembled and sent to the front to keep those in command from blowing up more historical gems. The reality that all this started with our own men putting monuments in peril may well be the funniest thing about the film.
The best-laid plans — even George Clooney's — can sometimes end up the best-laid eggs.