It's a fascinating bit of WWII-era history. But not, apparently, an easy one to turn into a consistently compelling movie.
Oh, I enjoyed director-actor and co-writer George Clooney's “The Monuments Men,” all right. The all-star casting alone makes it worth checking out. And the hunt for what's called “the greatest collection of private art in the history of the world” is intriguing.
But I wasn't as emotionally involved as I should have been in this special unit of soldiers tasked with finding, rescuing and returning great art treasures stolen by the Nazis. All the renamed characters are based on real people, yet we never feel like we get to know any of them well enough to care about them as individuals.
There's Frank Stokes (Clooney), an art historian who leads the seven-man team he recruits: a museum curator (Matt Damon), another historian (Bob Balaban), a sculptor (John Goodman), an architect (Bill Murray), a French art dealer (Jean Dujardin) and an alcoholic Englishman trying to restore his good name (Hugh Bonneville).
The first part of the movie is about pulling the well-aged team together, giving them basic training and putting them on the ground in Europe. Clooney and co-screenwriter Grant Heslov (“Good Night and Good Luck,” “Ides of March”) try to perk things up with light banter between Clooney's and Damon's characters, and Balaban's simmering dislike of a typically droll Murray.
Sometimes it works, sometimes not. They all feel a bit interchangeable. And once joined in battle, a sense of urgency goes AWOL.
Clooney employs old filmmaking techniques to give this a feel of other WWII ensemble movies you admire, and Alexander Desplat's jaunty score helps.
I enjoyed a scene in which Murray is showering in some miserable military camp, and Balaban sneaks a recording of Murray's family singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” onto the camp loudspeaker.
Damon is quite effective as his character works in Paris to gain the trust of Claire (Cate Blanchett, fine character work), a double agent who worked for the Nazi bureau that gathered and shipped the stolen art. Actually part of the Resistance, Claire has kept meticulous, secret records of what was sent where, but she fears the Americans will simply crate it all to their own museums in New York. That, after all, is what the Russians are doing.
Bonneville has one fine moment when he seeks help from a field commander to protect a Michelangelo sculpture in nearby Bruges, Belgium. Refused, he sneaks behind enemy lines alone to do what he can.
Clooney basically plays Clooney, a charmer with a glint in his eye and a ready sense of humor. Nice touch that he uses his uncle, Nick Clooney, to play his older self at the end.
But the tone of the movie is uneven, veering from jokes about Damon's bad French to barrels of gold nuggets extracted from teeth of the exterminated. Playing for laughs a situation in which Damon's character has stepped on a mine is also tonally off. And bits of narration or a character reading from a letter feel too obvious in the way they point out the heroic nature of what these men did.
Yet it was heroic, and worth discovering. The all-star cast may have been underutilized by a flawed script and a too-surfacy setup, but they're still good at what they do and a joy to watch as they do it.
It's flawed, but you still might catch me watching this again on DVD or cable one day.
THE MONUMENTS MEN
Quality: 2.5 stars (out of four)
Director: George Clooney
Stars: Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban
Rating: PG-13 for smoking, images of war violence
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Theaters: Aksarben, Bluffs 17, Majestic, Midtown, Oakview, Regal, Twin Creek, Village Pointe, Westroads