Art Patrol: ‘The Monuments Men’ is no masterpiece

In many ways, we still live in an Adolf Hitler world. The Middle East is his legacy; so is the configuration of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. And while it may seem like a subordinate concern, his indiscriminate kleptomania and infinite bad taste continue to reverberate through the world of art.

To get a sense of this, take a look at the documentary “Portrait of Wally” (2012), which is also the title of a 1912 painting by Egon Schiele of his lover Walburga Neuzil. Stolen by a high-ranking Nazi from the Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi in Vienna in 1939, the picture was heisted again by Austrians in the post-war 50s and later exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1997. There it became the center of a lawsuit that rocked the foundation of the museum world. People at the top of the curatorial hierarchy—including the cosmetics heir Ron Lauder, erstwhile champion of returning all Nazi art—suddenly were arguing that cultural institutions like MOMA could not possibly function if stolen paintings were going to be seized by U.S. authorities and given back to their rightful owners.

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Art-seizing American authorities like those who originally rescued “Wally” are the servicemen celebrated in The Monuments Men, a wartime adventure yarn directed, or rather misdirected, by the actor George Clooney. Like the “Wally” doc, Clooney’s movie is a true story. Sort of.

Based on a book by Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter), “Monuments Men” recounts the efforts of a ragtag band of art scholars who went in search of the millions of pieces of art with which Hitler intended to fill his planned Führer Museum, just as soon as he got his 1,000-year Reich safely off the ground.

“Monuments Men” was going to be released during the 2013 Oscar season, but cooler heads prevailed and banished it to the midwinter limbo through which movie fans are currently suffering. It is a movie flawed in its DNA. In fact, its shortcomings are so obvious the film should be shown in film schools, especially as a case study in how not to handle comedy.

One can argue about the importance of art. There are some among us who, given the outlandish hypothetical of choosing our own survival over that of the Sistine Chapel, would pick Michaelangelo’s ceiling. But even though the religious capacity of art is never far from the discussion, Clooney does not come close to making his case (he and producer Grant Heslov wrote the script), despite some earnest declarations about the investment of human beings in their culture and the insidious efforts of Hitler to erase not just peoples but their histories.

Besides, no matter how strongly one feels about the Picassos that the Germans start torching as they realize world domination is going to be just another shattered Teutonic dream, it is a little difficult to generate dramatic tension about an art-salvage project when there is a world war going on around it.

Clooney certainly is not the director to do it, at any rate. It is clear that he is trying to recreate the feel of a 1940s war film, with a certain quotient of comedy arising from the comic boot camp sequence, the character-stuck-on-a-landmine sequence, the snappish rather than snappy dialogue and a soundtrack (by the estimable Alexandre Desplat) that is used like a cudgel. There is a sense of dire calculation about the international cast of the characters assembled by Frank and thrown together in classic fish-out-of-water formation to find the art before the Nazis can destroy it.

One of the key pieces is Vermeer’s “The Astronomer” (which apparently still has a swastika stamped on its back as it hangs at the Louvre). Another is the “Altarpiece of Ghent,” described by Frank as “the defining monument of the Catholic Church,” a statement guaranteed to start arguments, although in a movie so lacking in tension, we’ll take it.

The point is made early in the film that by 1943 most of the young art scholars were already in Europe fighting the war. This allows Clooney to populate his movie with some charming oldsters, namely Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman and Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”). The youngster in the group is Matt Damon, whose character, James Granger, has a “bad ticker,” hence his 4-F status. He also seems a bit dopey to be a curator at the Met, but hey, it’s the war years; there is a shortage of manpower. He has a fleeting flirtation with a Parisian art expert, Claire Simone, a fictional version of the remarkable real-life heroine Rose Valland, who has been trying in her quiet way to forestall the Nazis’ Rape of Europa (also the title of another fine book on the subject). Claire is played by Cate Blanchett with a French accent she might have borrowed from Peter Sellers, and she is saddled with a suspicion of the Monuments Men—she thinks they are trying to spirit the art away to America—that is both illogical and irksome.

The flatness of “The Monuments Men” can be illustrated by two scenes. One involves our token Frenchman, Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin of “The Artist”), delivering his heartfelt thanks to his fellow art detectives for coming to save the culture of his country. In the middle of his small speech, Clooney cuts to Bill Murray, who is sitting and listening. And that’s it. Just sitting and listening. No one cuts to Bill Murray for no reason. Murray is perhaps the most inherently funny man in the movies. He’s a serious actor, yes, but you don’t cut to him to affirm a dramatic moment. You cut to him to relieve a dramatic moment. There’s no such intention here. Has Clooney met Bill Murray?

A similar kind of moment takes place between Balaban’s Preston Savitz and Goodman’s Walter Garfield, who have had a fractious relationship all through the movie. We find Walter reading about one of the missing works in a document the team has found in one of the salt mines where the art has been hidden.

“How did you read that?” Preston asks.

“It’s in English,” Walter answers.

“I know,” Preston quips. Pause. “I didn’t know you could read.”

And that is how not to deliver a joke. Had Balaban simply walked away on “I know...” the viewer would experience a moment of suspended understanding, then a chuckle. By adding “I didn’t know you could read,” the joke is explained and effectively neutered. You only make a lame joke lamer by hitting us over the head with the punchline. But that is the kind of thing “Monuments Men” does with regularity while, just by the way, putting a happy ending on a story that has never really ended.

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