In The Monuments Men, director George Clooney takes a wild, stranger-than-fiction true story and turns it into a dull, prestigious slog. The fact that the movie opens and closes with lectures, complete with slideshow presentations, is not an accident. Clooney is an erratic director — his previous four films, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck, Leatherheads and The Ides of March, were all over the place — and although he seems to favor a classical, old-school approach to narrative, he’s not much for generating suspense and excitement, two things this movie badly needs.
Loosely based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, the movie follows the efforts of art curator Frank Stokes (Clooney) to round up a different kind of Ocean’s 11 — an art restorer (Matt Damon), an architect (Bill Murray), a painter (Jean Dujardin), a sculptor (John Goodman), a museum curator (Hugh Bonneville) and a theater producer (Bob Balaban) — then go through a quick round of boot camp in England before heading out to the front lines in France in 1944 to recover priceless works of art stolen by the Nazis. Hitler is collecting as many masterpieces as he can to fill his proposed Fuehrermuseum. But Stokes, who argues that art is part of our world history, is intent on not letting that happen.
The Monuments Men has a few good moments, such as the awkward, unspoken romance between Damon and a French secretary (Cate Blanchett) who has learned to trust no one, or a scene in which Balaban finds a record player so Murray can listen to the holiday greetings his family has sent him back home.
But too little of the movie confronts the question at the forefront of the viewers’ mind — with all the atrocities that took place during the war, could the loss of life for protecting a statue be justified? — and Clooney refuses to give in to the adventure underpinnings of the material, keeping the pace at a genteel second gear. When characters die, you barely feel anything. The movie hasn’t given you much of a reason to care for any of them. The Monuments Men is so stiff, it manages to make even the wild-man Murray boring. He’s so well-behaved and proper, he and the milquetoast Balaban could have switched roles, and no one would have noticed.
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban.
Director: George Clooney.
Screenwriters: George Clooney, Grant Heslov. Based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter.
Producers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov.
A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 118 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence. Opens Friday Feb. 7 at area theaters.