Monuments MenThe true story behind Monuments Men is a lot like the incredible artwork it features: a testament to the indomitable will of western culture, grand and exciting, layered into the bedrock of history. George Clooney’s film, on the other hand, has more in common with the Nazi characters it portrays. He, like them, is responsible for callously burning down a great historical document. Whereas the Third Reich employs flamethrowers for its actions, Mr. Clooney does just as well armed with the sloppy screenplay he co-penned with his producing partner, Grant Heslov.

Monuments Men tells the story of seven art historians tasked with saving important pieces of art and architecture in Nazi-invaded Europe. At this point, the Axis is already hustling back home and D-day is in the periphery. George Clooney, who also directs, stars alongside Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville, as the eponymous monuments men.

The piece decidedly eschews the clichés of the underdog narrative, and I believe it must be commended in some way for that. Except for a brief interlude where they go through basic training and a few scenes where “real” soldiers scoff at them, the film expertly evades the pitfalls of its own tired premise.

In fact, the group is rarely united as they quickly separate into duos tasked with saving different pieces; the actors must be recognized here for their indelible chemistry. Balaban’s acerbic straight man routine perfectly compliments Murray, the eternal eccentric clown, in one of the film’s most genuinely comical sequences. Goodman and Dujardin fighting about who will get to kill the German marksman sniping them down, and Matt Damon failing to speak French also merit a few laughs.

And yet, while the comic relief is well-timed, the film fails at every single one of its dramatic beats.  I felt like the filmmakers were aiming for a delicate mix of laughs and cries, that elusive golden ratio of poignancy; instead I got a few decent jokes in exchange for a plot that lets the weight slip right through its fingers every time it flirts with any real pathos.

It does such a good job avoiding the real human cost of conflict, that it sometimes feels like the war itself is an afterthought. A brief reflection on Nazi war crimes by German-American translator Sam Epstein, brilliantly played by Dmitri Leonidas, keeps this narrative thread on life support at best. I wish his character had a larger role but, alas, the film keeps cutting away from what is truly important in order to give us more fluff. For one, a whole side story involving a romance between Damon and a harsh-but-deep-down-lovable German curator played by Cate Blanchett felt weirdly forced and, to be quite honest, completely irrelevant.

Because of this, the few times our beloved museum directors find themselves in danger’s way ring untrue. And danger is quite close, as is death. The sacrifices these men went through are so outstanding that it is rather sad to see their onscreen tribulations carry such minimal impact. This same indifference is also felt in how the precious artworks they are trying to defend are discussed on-screen. We know these men must protect the Ghent altarpiece from those horrible Nazis but not once does the film elucidate why this piece is so important. (An impressive feat given that it is one of the most important works of early Christian art. The dialogue practically writes itself.) The sole exception is Bonneville’s character’s heartfelt amazement in revisiting his childhood memory of Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, but moments like these are sparse.

Ultimately this is just another case of a film that is not bad because it fails some empiric measure of quality but because the final product is so vapid in comparison to its great promise. The story and the people attached are awe-inspiring and not just in the acting department; Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is breathtaking as always, his most proficient light-play since Nebraska, and beautifully complements the superb production design.

But the final product is an uninspired mess that never gels, never reaches the tone it aches for. Like a Picasso turned to ashes in a German vault, this exciting piece of history will never get to be properly exhibited.