Expectations are a sticky wicket for any reviewer – you want to go into each movie with a virginal purity that gives no court to either dread or anticipation. Of course, what's fine in theory falls apart in practice. Such is the case with George Clooney, whose performances alone have elevated minor material in the past, but as a director has proven himself such an immensely talented commodity that any release he'd attach his name to in that capacity is immediately vaulted into “must-see” territory. Which is all a massively long-winded way of saying that The Monuments Men is by no means a bad movie when taken in a vacuum – its cast of ringers all perform admirably, and the story of a small group of soldiers tasked with recovering the massive amounts of art stolen by the Nazis over the course of World War 2 is fascinating – but has to be seen as a let-down given the level of quality previously established by everyone involved. With this director, that cast and that premise, we should have been delivered an all-time classic instead of a sometime diversion.
Monuments Men feels like the sort of movie that would've ran about 165 minutes with an intermission and overture while shot in CinemaScope in the past, and that is certainly no mistake. Clooney as director has a voracious appetite for cinema and his love for past eras has shone brightly in previous work (for better and worse, Leatherheads replicates the experience of a traditional screwball comedy all the way down to a superfluous mid-film chase sequence), and he's painting in extremely broad strokes with his work here. From the omnipresent patriotic music cues (Alexandre Desplat bringin’ dat bombast) to the wildly earnest message being delivered throughout (if you forget about the movie's dedication to the notion of art as the truest demarcation of a culture's existence, a monologue will remind you approximately every 10 minutes) he's operating in full-on populist mode. The trouble he runs into is that he can't determine if he wants to make a stirring populist drama or a light-hearted populist caper, so he attempts both at once and fudges the movie's tone in the process.
Clooney remains a strong directorial hand – multiple sequences are staged with panache and a winter interlude set at the Battle of the Bulge left this particular reviewer fighting back crocodile tears. But these moments prove relatively scarce, and the matters of tonality throw the whole enterprise off balance – it doesn't move breezily enough to justify its moments of whimsy and it doesn't settle into any particular scenario or character pairing long enough to mine the proper amounts of gravitas. Pairing off the massive cast into intriguing duos (John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon) should in theory have allowed each of their stories time to breathe and each actor time to carve out their own niche in the film, but we breeze through conflict and comedy alike without ever spending enough time with any subplot leaving the final product deflating and undercooked. Divorced from expectation, The Monuments Men is a diverting two hours in the theater with enough in the way of performance and craft to be considered far from a bad movie. That said, such a convergence of talent should result in something much more substantial than a movie you'll be happy to leave on in the background as you fold laundry in 2017.