- - Thursday, February 6, 2014

Over and over again, in monologue after monologue and quiet chat after quiet chat, “The Monuments Men” affirms its commitment to great art. It’s the stuff that civilization is made of, the reason we’re alive, the “very foundation of modern society.”

At one point, one of the movie’s heroes seems to suggest that art is actually more important than mere people. “You can wipe out a generation of people, but they come back.” But art? When it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

Yet for a movie so eager to declare the value of art, “The Monuments Men” engages in precious little of it. Jarringly edited and consistently anxious about its own premise, it’s an incoherent mess of a movie and a frustrating waste of talent.

Directed and co-written by George Clooney, the movie has all the trappings of a late-year prestige film. Certainly it managed to attract an impressive cast: Cate Blanchett appears as a French secretary who secrets away information about private art, while Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Bob Balaban star as a team of aging art scholars recruited to travel to Europe in order to save great works of art during World War II. But what this high star-wattage cast saw in the project we’ll never know.

Yes, it’s an intriguing premise based on a true story, but the execution is muddled to the point of indecipherability. None of the characters are well defined, and the plotting is as saggy as a pair of wet underpants. Subplots appear and disappear with little explanation, as if at some point in the story’s development the vision was radically different.

Indeed, the movie frequently gives the impression of having been edited more in hopes of salvage than as an attempt to create something coherent. It didn’t work. The overall effect is rather like randomly watching two hours worth of randomly selected scenes from an entire season of a television show.

The scattered editing exacerbates the tonal problems that were virtually certain to arise in any attempt to tell a story like this. The movie can’t decide if it wants to be a wry, lighthearted romp or a somber examination of the civilization-wide devastation of World War II.

The shifts can be jarring and occasionally off-putting; at one point the movie moves from a scene in which Mr. Damon’s character steps on a landmine, played for laughs, to the awful discovery of a barrel full of gold teeth — taken from European Jews by the Nazis.

The question of how to balance the value of great art against the loss of human life is one the movie raises frequently but struggles to answer. The fact that it asks the question so often suggests that its creators are aware that there’s no real contest, that saving lives is simply and straightforwardly more important than saving art, no matter its historical importance.

But the movie never quite gets around to endorsing this view, because to do so would be to undermine its wartime adventure-movie premise. Art or people? The movie never decides which side it’s on. The result is a movie that fails both art and people equally.

TITLE: The Monuments Men

CREDITS: Directed by George Clooney. Written by Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov.

RATING: PG-13 for violence, language

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: Four stars

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