An impressive ensemble cast can be a massive obstacle apparently. Sadly, this is the biggest lesson to be gleaned from George Clooney's The Monuments Men, which squanders an intriguing true story from World War II and a ridiculous (like, epically ridiculous) group of your favorite actors searching for a stabilizing rudder that never materializes.
Clooney co-wrote and directed the film, and he got some of his best dazzlingly famous good friends to deliver lines for him. Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, The Artist's Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Cate Blanchett are featured players -- all of them part of an effort by the Allies to rescue as many stolen pieces of priceless artwork from the clutches of Nazi Germany as it crumbles at the end of the Second World War.
The uneven promotion of the film and its release-date shift from late 2013 to early 2014 hint at a final product that doesn't know what it wants to be. It has serious moments and comedic ones, but they never mesh together seamlessly. It feels like you're watching a series of tonally distinct short films about the same subject. The Monuments Men is at different times a historical drama, a spy thriller and a chase story. Yet it seems most concerned with giving enough screen time to each of its stars so that we care a little -- but only a little! -- about what happens to them.
Pressed to name a main character, I'd say, "eh, Matt Damon, I guess."
None of these things sink a film by itself. But they do tell a story about a picture that is lacking a clear identity. The conceit of The Monuments Men is akin to Ocean's Eleven as a mid-century period piece, only the former never commits to being (mostly) one thing in the same way that the latter is a caper flick at heart, albeit with a lot of famous people involved in the caper.
Now, I am generally loath to play script/story doctor, but what The Monuments Men seems to miss are the very elements that make the story so interesting -- namely, the art Clooney and company are trying to save from the Nazis and Adolf Hitler's peculiar preoccupation with collecting so much of it. "He really wanted it all," says Damon at one point in reference to Hitler's hording of artwork throughout Western Europe. It begs the question why, and yet that idea is never really taken much further.
The single best scene in the entire film might be one of the very first. Before any of the most recognizable faces appear, Belgian monks scramble to hide away the Ghent Altarpiece, a 15th century panel painting by Hubert van Eyck. The camera lingers on the artwork as the monks' hands jostle it from its location in an attempt to hide it away from the Nazis. You get to see one of these centuries-old cultural relics and you also feel the tension of the goose-stepping art thieves who shouldn't be trusted with the care of such a piece of artwork as they close in.
The rest of The Monuments Men is about undoing the Nazis' continent-wide kleptomania, and yet it somehow can't manage that kind of fraught emotion again. There are many distractions the rest of the way, and Clooney seemed intent on indulging them all.