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‘Monuments Men’ becomes a monumental disappointment

Movie: The Monuments Men; Director: George Clooney; Studio: Sony Pictures; Rating: PG-13; My finding: 2 out of 5 stars.

Put simply, “The Monuments Men” is nothing more than an uncomfortable, unfinished, disorganized mess that amounts to a monumental disappointment.

On paper, the film should have been gold.

An ensemble cast of both beloved leading and character actors form a group created in a smoke-filled room at the height of World War II by Frank Stokes (George Clooney) and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to protect humanity’s cultural treasures from being destroyed in war. Together they become “the Monuments Men,” which is shorthand for the men working in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program of the Allied forces, which was a real, historical program.

Even with the fact that the film pares down the hundreds of art historians, artists and academics who enlisted under the program down to a base ensemble of seven, these characters themselves are bogged down and not given any room to grow, or even begin to differentiate themselves.

When the program is given the go-ahead, Stokes enlists New York Metropolitan Museum of Art curator James Granger (Matt Damon), Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), monumental sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), British academic and recently recovering alcoholic Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and ballet director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) as his core group.

Stokes and Granger seem to be the only ones who have any military background whatsoever, so the entire group is thrust into a speed-tracked boot camp to prepare them for war should they be forced into a position where they must fight to achieve their mission.

This beginning part is all well and good, and seems like the set-up for a true movie event that has Oscars written all over it. But as soon as they launch out to various places in central Europe, two things happen.

The plot stops being coherent and the heart of the story seems to have been all but lost.

For a film based on a true story of men willing to put their lives at risk to preserve the very culture that gives human history and a possible future any meaning, it doesn’t seem to care about art very much.

Sure, you see your Rembrandts and your Picassos and your da Vinci and all manner of priceless classics and then-contemporary masterpieces, but they all feel like so many numbers, to be sorted and collected by the ton to return to their origins.

There is a long monologue awkwardly placed there in the beginning, voiced by Clooney’s character, that tells of the meaning of art. Everyone sits around a fire in some dilapidated building trying to sell with their expressions the meaning of culture to humanity, but the whole thing feels flat.

In total, the uncomfortable scene is an omen that the various parts to this story will not jibe, and scene after scene attempting to pull at our hearts and our minds will also fall flat.

And they do.

Character development is alluded to in the briefest of ways. One man just quit drinking and is looking to redeem himself from his wayward life. One man doesn’t like being called a “Private” after all of his academic training and social standing and for some reason is incessantly teased by another character even though they have no discernable background together. Another of the crew is thrust off to Paris away from the rest of the group for absolutely no reason, it seems, rather than to hobnob with a condescending French spy character of no real use, played by Cate Blanchet.

And then, because of these little jokes, we’re supposed to somehow discern that they miss their family and that this war apparently there is still a war going on, though we don’t really see much of it because we’re watching too much hobnobbing instead is taking a toll on them.

We see Bill Murray crying in the shower because a message from home comes, although he didn’t seem very homesick before.

We see a man get shot, but we never really knew much about him at all, so the dramatic pain this causes the others and the way this solidifies their mission for them emotionally doesn’t ring true for us in the audience.

It would be great if all of this was due to the movie being in some way complex. Then I would have to admit that I’m an idiot to not understand it. But, unfortunately, this movie is not complex at all.

Everything is right there, as plain as can be.

These men are traveling and saving paintings and statues and important buildings. Sometimes doing this mission is hard. They’re old men, so they aren’t very prepared for war. Culture is important as a testament to humanity.

It’s all there, but the way it’s presented in this convoluted, uncaring way is about the worst possible way to present a rather obscure historical group of men who did sacrifice something to make sure future generations wouldn’t live in a bleak, gray world without the vibrancy of history and creativity.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)